It is undoubtedly the long, treacherous, and storied African location shooting that makes African Queen feel so grandiose in scale. Truthfully, the film is anything but, concerning two initially mismatched people trying to avoid the German advance of World Ward I on a small 30-foot boat.
The direction of John Huston and keen eye of cinematographer Jack Cardiff insert small glimpses of wildlife, hippos hitting the water or crocodiles diving off the shore. They film intense depictions of the rapids from a distance, making the audience understand the intensity of the situation.
Of course, stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn do the same, carrying their own panicked looks that suit their characters. The role reversals are wonderful, and progress naturally. Rose (Hepburn) is a high class, religious English woman, concerned with her tea, modesty, and clothes. Charlie (Bogart) loves the river, getting dirty, and his boat.
After Rose is finally allowed to live, taking on a severe series of rapids, she is exhilarated. She wants to go again, as if they were some sort of theme park ride. Charlie, with all of his experience, is terrified at the thought.
That is one of many scenes that transition these characters into two radically altered people. Bogart’s sole Oscar came from this film, certainly aided by his drunken rant towards Hepburn, which, despite a hint of comedic value in his staggered walk, is intense and violent in terms of its words. African Queen immediately turns it around, Rose dumping every ounce of gin over the side of boat. It is her way of caring, not just a means to make her ride more pleasant.
Rose and Charlie’s means of greeting each other also show change. Initially, they would not dare refer to each other as anything but Miss Sayer and Mr. Allnut. They eventually learn each others first names, and finally settle on “dear.” The transformation is so natural in its flow and in terms of the writing, you barely notice. You can see the change in attitudes in their eyes and take it for granted.
African Queen is classic Hollywood, a mixture of romance, high adventure, comedy, and drama. Even its ending, with the main characters about to be hanged on a German ship, never loses its place in any of those genres. The final shot, that of Bogart and Hepburn swimming out of frame, singing happily despite the circumstances, is a classic closer. It is a full evolution of their characters, brought together under the most intense of situations, and now simply happy to have found each other.
This is the first time African Queen has been available on a digital format, let alone in hi-def. Previous incarnations were on VHS, multiple Laserdisc editions, CED Videodisc, and beta. How it had avoided release on DVD to date is baffling, and thankfully, Paramount has saw fit to release a masterful restoration on Blu-ray alongside.
This is a pristine master, one free of any specks, scratches, or other imperfections. The frame never wobbles, and color is consistent across the frame in all shots. The AVC encode is incredibly healthy, regularly hitting (and surpassing) 40MB. This proper, 4×3 presentation maintains a beautiful, full grain structure without any noticeable artifacting, and the bare minimum of chroma noise.
Immediately apparent are wonderful, rich, and full black levels. Images offer tremendous pop as they leap off the frame. Sharpness is exceptional, typically consistent as well. Many of Hepburn’s close-ups are intentionally diffused to give her a softer, glowing quality. Bogart’s reveals astonishing levels of texture and facial definition. Every bead of sweat, pore, and dirt are fully resolved.
Colors are rich and bold, giving flesh tones a natural bronzed hue. Technicolor is a sight to behold as lush African jungle greens pass by, and their remarkable detail is equally easy to appreciate. Every strand of straw on the grass huts, every leaf, and single flowers are presented faithfully as if pulled right from the camera seconds after they were filmed.
The major rapids run, occurring about 54-minutes in, offers some spectacular long shots from above the action. Every crest of every wave seems easily distinguishable, and details on the boat itself are easily visible. Certain special effect shots are understandably unstable, but never digital or distracting. Given the loving care that has produced the rest of this encode, Paramount obviously ensured those shots are as pristine as they will ever be.
While African Queen does not need a full, modern 5.1 remixing, and it arguably should never get one, this compressed mono effort is hardly appropriate for the masterful video presentation. Dialogue is reproduced faithfully, with minimal distortion or hiss. Even under the strain of heavy action or the hum of the boat’s motors, all of the necessary words are audible. It is also stable, and no drop outs are noted.
Unfortunately, it is Allan Gray’s score that is completely lost to this effort. The opening village attack by the Germans is so incredibly flat, muffled, and strained, entire instruments seem lost. Clashing cymbals have no impact, and blaring trumpets seem completely obscured. During the storm before the finale, the mixture of crashing waves, rain, thunder, music, and dialogue is a mess of unintelligible cues. In fact, the score is completely lost under the action.
While a lowly Blu-ray reviewer is unaware of the master utilized (and no feature on the restoration is provided on the disc), there is a chance the audio was in rather dire condition to begin with. Mono mixes can sound wonderful as in the recent Wizard of Oz release. Regardless of the option chosen there, the music contained a vibrancy and clarity that gave those scenes new life.
This mono effort, whether due to compression or the source, seems to limit the intensity of the action. It is more of a distraction when you are trying to make out the music as Bogart and Hepburn tumble overboard. You should be taken by the moment. Hopefully the audio can receive the same level of restoration in the future, or maybe a new source could be located. As it stands, this is barely sufficient.
A solitary extra resides on the disc, a wonderful and extensive hour-long making-of titled Embracing Chaos. Paramount is also releasing the film in a Commemorative Box set, with physical bonus items such as lobby cards.