Review: The African Queen (2011)

This originally appeared on Capital New York.

See ‘The African Queen’ with a crowd; marvel at Hepburn’s pallor

The African Queen (1951), directed by John Huston, has endured as a classic with audiences who love the humorous sparring between the two middle-aged leads (Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart), the adventurous obstacle-ridden plot involving a perilous trip down a river in “German East Africa” in a battered riverboat at the dawn of WWI, and the loopy ending with Hepburn and Bogart swimming off happily through Lake Tanganyika after exploding a German warship only minutes following their marriage, and moments away from being executed.

The entire thing is preposterous, and it really shouldn’t work as well as it does. From the moment we see the two onscreen together, Bogart as Charlie Allnut, the wizened and sweaty riverboat captain, looking like he stinks of gin and cigarettes, and Hepburn as Rose Sayer, the uptight humorless spinster trying to bring Christianity to the Africans, we know that they are going to get together, and none of it makes sense, and yet we look forward to watching it unfold. It’s not what happens onscreen, it’s how it happens.

It was an important project for Hepburn, who needed a segue into middle-aged roles, and it was very important for Bogart, who won an Academy Award for his portrayal (beating out Fredric March in Death of a Salesman, Arthur Kennedy in Bright Victory, Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, and the new sensation Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire).

For decades, when audiences have seen The African Queen, they have seen a muddy-toned washed-out print of the original, because the Technicolor negative was so degraded and had apparently shrunk. But now, just in time for the 60th anniversary of The African Queen, Paramount Pictures has released a beautiful 35mm restoration of the film on DVD and Blu-Ray, which will be playing for one week only at the Film Forum in New York, from Friday, February 11 to Thursday, February 17. Not only is it a wonderful opportunity to see this film on the big screen in a crowded theatre (when most of us have only seen it in the privacy of our own homes), but it’s also a treat to see the restored colors, the brightness, the freshness of the images, which had been lost in the muddy print we’ve all seen. The flesh is what at first struck me as markedly changed: Instead of the matte, smudgy look of the faces in the original faded print, the flesh here, of Hepburn, and Bogart, and Robert Morley (as Rose Sayer’s missionary brother) looks vibrant with life. You can see Hepburn’s freckles, Bogart’s nose-hairs, the water dripping off of Hepburn’s shoulders, the deep creases around Bogart’s eyes. The faces pop off the screen, really showing the genius of Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s lighting and camerawork in a challenging on-location situation. The jungle now burns with a shining greenness, and the river, which Cardiff so aptly described in Magic Hour, his memoir, as “incredibly black—like squid ink” unfurls across the screen, clearly reflecting the overhanging green with a clarity and vividness completely missing from the original.

Based on a novel by C.S. Forester, the African Queen as a potential project had been batted around Hollywood for years, before John Huston and producer Sam Spiegel snatched it up. Huston sent the script to Hepburn, to Bogart, and both said yes, especially once it became clear that they would be working with one another. Huston wanted to film The African Queen on location in Africa, an insane prospect in that studio-lot era. Everyone advised against it. He had already filmed on location with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (in Mexico), and liked the gritty sense of reality that a location shoot could give a picture. Huston wanted to avoid fakery as much as possible, and also wanted to resist any reliance on rear-projection, so common in studio pictures at the time. Africa was a far cry from Mexico, however, and the logistics were daunting throughout. Huston and Spiegel wheeled and dealed their way into a giant complicated location shoot in Uganda and what was then the Belgian Congo.

The stories of the shoot have passed on into legend by now, and almost every participant has published at least one memoir describing their vivid (and mostly awful, albeit hilarious in retrospect) experiences. The entire cast and crew came down with dysentery from drinking contaminated water (everyone, that is, except for Huston and Bogart, who drank only whiskey for the entire shoot), they all stayed in a camp literally hacked out of the jungle, and were periodically overrun by ferocious safari ants which would send Hepburn and Lauren Bacall (who came along to support her husband) screaming out of their huts. Black mambas reared out of the privies. The African Queen itself sank into the river one dreadful night and had to be rescued and rebuilt. Huston was disgruntled that he couldn’t shoot as much big game as he wanted to, and Bogart despised Africa in general. He preferred being home with his wife, his kid, his yacht. Hepburn lost 25 pounds due to her illness (a startling amount on a woman already so thin), and in the first scene where she is seen playing a piano in a chapel for the natives, a bucket was placed offscreen for her to vomit into. Cardiff worried that filming in Technicolor would only highlight how literally green Hepburn looked through the filming, and in this restoration you can see her pallor much more clearly. It adds a level of reality to the picture. Jack Cardiff, has a very entertaining chapter in his book about the challenges he faced having to film in the blaring light of Africa:

Although I knew we were taking much less equipment than usual, I requested two lamps to be sent out, to be run off a tiny generator. John Woolf was astonished. “My dear Jack. You don’t need lamps in Africa. That’s where all the sun is!”

I explained that the strong overhead sun made it necessary to fill in the resulting dark shadows on faces, and reflectors would be useless in a moving boat.

Paramount Pictures should be congratulated for restoring those “dark shadows” in all their clarity and gleam, because those colors deepen our appreciation of The African Queen, the film that critic Pauline Kael called “one of the most charming and entertaining movies ever made”.

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