Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Movies A-Z: The African Queen

The African Queen (1951, dir. John Huston) is what classic Hollywood is all about. Based on C.S. Forester’s novel of the same name, it’s both a rollicking adventure and a touching romance. It reels back and forth between laugh-out-load humour, and lump-in-the-throat sentiment, and you just can’t help yourself; it grabs you by the heart strings every time. Humphrey Bogart received his long overdue best actor Oscar for his pitch perfect portrayal of happy-go-lucky adventurer Charley Allnut. His chemistry with Katherine Hepburn as straight-laced missionary Rose is perfect. The dialogue is whip-smart and watching their romance slowly develop through one adversity after another on their wild river wide is a delightful experience. John Huston took the actors on location to Africa (Bogart already dying of cancer wearing wigs to hide his hair loss from medical treatment) and frustrated the studio by going way over time and way over budget. (For a fascinating semi-fictional retelling of the making of the film see Clint Eastwood’s Black Hunter White Heart). But the location shooting pays off, even though there is clearly also stock footage in use here and there.

For all its brilliance, there are a few false notes. Bogart’s character is Canadian but there isn’t even an attempt at a Canadian accent. The script drops the ball on historical accuracy when Morling’s missionary demonstrates envy at a former junior classmate who has been promoted to bishop. Rose and her brother (played well by Robert Morling) are English missionaries and only American Methodists had bishops. A small error perhaps and lost on the average moviegoer I’m sure. Rose and her brother serve “1st Methodist Church Kundun” in German East Africa in September 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. There is some nice historical detail. As “the Brother” is taking tea he is reading a Methodist newspaper and the camera shows us the titles of two articles adorned with portraits of their subjects. One is “Charles Wesley’s Masterpiece: Wresting Jacob” and the other is “In Praise of [John] Wesley’s Literary Style.” There is even an advertisement for “Wesleyan Wind Pills” a humorous nod to Charley Allnut’s uncouth stomach rumblings at the tea table.

The film takes us on an exciting journey down the river as Charley and Rose decide to wager all on an attempt to do their bit for the British Empire and sink a German cruiser guarding the headwaters of the river. Their leaky little river steamer is faithful and unreliable in turns, much like its captain, but with Rose’s can-do attitude both the boat and its pilot are kept ship-shape. Bogart really convinces in every aspect of his role – whether drunk or angry, sceptical or positive, fed up with Rosie or madly in love with her. In one particularly harrowing scene the horror and revulsion he feels for what look like real leeches suggest that it may not all have been acting! Hepburn’s performance as the prissy but slowly thawing “old maid” is equally good. Her line about riding the rapids ("I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!") is a classic double entendre as her character warms up to the joys of romantic love. Just as the film appears to end on a tragic note an unexpected turn of good fortune resolves all in a hilarious way that leaves us on a feel-good high.

If you have not seen this film, do yourself a favour and view it; you won’t be disappointed. The poor quality transfer of the only available DVD (available at a budget price from MRA Entertainment) is scandalous. A film like this deserves better treatment than it has been given. It’s a Technicolor film but presently looks drab and murky. A restored version is long overdue and hopefully there is an original camera negative out there somewhere for the restorers to work their magic on. The film was made by independent film company Romulus Films, so I’m not sure whether Warner Brothers or some other major studio has the rights. The kind of treatment that other Bogart films such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre have been given, would really be wonderful along with a decent set of special features to do justice to this landmark of a film. A Blue-Ray disc would be a revelation. [Stop Press: See the article at the end of this post for news on a Blue-Ray edition!] Until then the next best thing would be a screening at the Astor Cinema the next time it appears on the calendar. This film gets five big stars from me.

Here's a ten minute excerpt for you to enjoy, one of the film's more lighthearted interludes:

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

1 comment:

Ross said...

Poorly mastered DVDs are annoying. I haven't seen The African Queen. Should I see it now, or hold out a for a better quality re-release?


Share |