The DVD case of The African Queen says that it’s “one of the greatest achievements in the history of cinema,” and then hedges a bit, concluding that it’s “arguably one of the finest films ever made.” There can be no arguing that it’s one of the most popular films ever made, for odd reasons of chemistry that elude any proper analysis. The thing that struck me most about this much-loved movie, watching it for the umpteenth time, is just how important Allan Gray’s musical score is to the action; his sprightly main theme literally propels the old boat of the title down the river, and when a romance blossoms between middle-aged souse Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and “psalm-singing, skinny old maid” Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), Gray’s lush music gracefully ushers us into the deep feelings they begin to have for each other.
As cinematographer, Jack Cardiff provides some stirring Technicolor views of the African locations (it’s unthinkable in black and white), and surely James Agee contributed much to the main relationship in the part of the script that is his. Best of all, of course, are Bogart and Hepburn doing two of the starriest damned star turns you’ve ever seen. Where is director John Huston in all this? Well, as told by Hepburn in her slim book about the making of the film, and in writer Peter Viertel’s roman à clef, White Hunter, Black Heart, Huston wanted to go to Africa to shoot an elephant. Having assembled the proper ingredients, he let the film pretty much take care of itself.
This is a romance, an adventure story, a comedy and a travelogue, so that it does have the proverbial “something for everyone.” It’s one of those movies that is always re-watchable on television, and it really does resist criticism, in a way. The laughs are obvious laughs, as in a slick Broadway play, and the romance is mimed by our stars in a way that “works,” without ever generating any real tension or heat. Technically speaking, it’s a fairly seamless blending of on-location footage with studio shooting. The ending is truncated and half-hearted. But it’s The African Queen. Frankly, judging this particular movie is like deciding that your best friend from second grade isn’t maybe all that smart, or something along those lines, and I really don’t have the heart for that.
This DVD promises a full restoration, and a blessedly full restoration is what we get. The images are so crisp and defined that in several shots it's like you're actually on that boat with Bogie and Katie. Best of all, the unsightly green line of color bleeding that always surrounded our stars in the process shots in TV airings has finally been removed, and every jungle roar and squawk comes through loud and clear.
An extremely enjoyable featurette, "Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen," where most of the major technical staff tell the story of the film's production, which is in some ways more intriguing than the charming movie itself.
A long-overdue disc of a longtime audience favorite, with an absolutely tip-top image restoration that makes this old tub look good as new.