Like most classic movie fans, I have have viewed The African Queen countless times. However, I had never truly seen The African Queen until I attended a special digital screening of the restored version. Cinema Retro was among a select number of publications to be invited by Paramount for the unveiling of the restored version of director John Huston's classic adventure. The screening took place at Viacom headquarters in Times Square (Viacom is the parent company of Paramount). Following a reception attended by Ron Smith, the man who headed up the restoration process, we were escorted into the screening room where a new documentary was shown detailing the painstaking efforts to preserve the film. When the movie itself was shown in digital format, the result was literally breathtaking. The film looks better than Huston could have ever hoped for.
The story presents Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut, a lovable Canadian rogue who traverses the bush country in the Belgian Congo in 1914, aboard his equally dilapidated boat The African Queen. Allnut makes himself useful as a jack-of-all trades and delivers mail periodically to prim-and-proper missionaries Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) and her dedicated, if pompous brother (Robert Morley). Both find Allnut appalling due to his excessive drinking, but show Christian charity in politely welcoming him. With the outbreak of WWI, German troops march into the remote compound, rousting the natives and fatally beating Rose's brother. Rescued by Charlie, Rose convinces him to embark on an audacious plan to use the African Queen and home-made torpedoes to sink a German war ship, thus making it possible for British troops to gain access to the Congo. Half the fun is watching the war of the sexes between Bogart and Hepburn before they form an unlikely romantic relationship. The film won Bogart his only Oscar. One can debate that his less sympathetic roles in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Caine Mutinymight have been more deserving, but he is a delight throughout, playing against character as a slovenly bum.
When the larger-than-life cast and crew arrived in Africa for filming, the stories behind the production became legendary. Hepburn was shocked and appalled by the behavior of Huston, much as her character is in the film at the sight of Charlie's habits. Similarly, writer Peter Viertel, who was called in to re-write the ending of James Agee's screenplay, was so transformed by the experience of working with Huston that he based his novel White Hunter, Black Heart on the trials and tribulations he endured. (The novel was transformed into one of Clint Eastwood's best - if least seen- films.) All of this is celebrated in a wonderful bonus extra, a new documentary by director Nicholas Meyer that explores every aspect of the production, including its roots in Huston and Bogart's anti-McCarthy protests.The documentary also includes other noted filmmakers and actors commenting on the movie's legacy and presents some wonderful behind the scenes footage detailing the crude conditions on location. Participants include Nicholas Meyer, Norman Lloyd, Martin Scorsese and Guy Hamilton, who was second unit director on the film and who would go on to helm James Bond movies. (There are several other connections to the Bond films: 007 cinematographer Ted Moore worked as a cameraman on The African Queen and actor Walter Gotell, who played Soviet General Gogol in the series has a supporting role as a German officer.) Huston shot as much as possible on location, defying the trend to shoot African-based films entirely in the studio. The result of his decision was to subject the cast and crew to enduring enormous discomfort, including using improvised toilets (i.e the surrounding jungle) and suffer from the onslaught of animals and insects. For scenes that necessitated the actors being in the water, Huston had to use studio shots because the water was so polluted. (Virtually everyone ended up coming down with dysentery from drinking unfiltered water that was contaminated by animal droppings!) Interestingly, the documentary points out that the source novel by C.S. Forester was a grim affair with a downbeat ending. However, when Huston saw the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn, he realized he was directing a comedy- and had the ending changed accordingly.
Somehow, from this unpromising scenario, a true cinematic classic emerged - and Paramount's new DVD edition captures the film's grandeur in all its glory. My only complaint is that the documentary about the restoration has - inexplicably- not been included on the disc. This is a true missed opportunity because a restoration effort this substantial would be of interest to anyone who buys the DVD. (If Paramount executives are reading this, how about at least posting the documentary on line?) It would also have been nice to include the original trailer. However, these are minor quibbles. The important point is that a true classic has been preserved for the ages and the African Queen will reign for decades to come.
Click here to order the deluxe DVD edition that includes movie memorabilia, the original radio broadcast of The African Queen and Katharine Hepburn's book about the making of the film. Click here to order on Blu-ray