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  African Queen, The Opposites Attract
Year: 1951
Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Peter Swanwick, Richard Marner
Genre: Comedy, Romance, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: The Belgian Congo, 1914, and as The Great War has broken out in Europe, the colonial forces around the world are grouping for combat, even in Africa, thousands of miles away from the heart of the conflict. Two British brother and sister missionaries, Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose (Katharine Hepburn) Sayer, have been living in splendid isolation in a small village remote from the outside world, lucky that the locals are quite happy to tolerate them, and getting their supplies and mail from the rivermen like the Canadian Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart) who sail the waterways. But the Germans are about to give them all a rude awakening into the brutalities of war...

The African Queen, named after Charlie's primitive steamboat, began life as a C.S. Forester novel, one of a number the bestselling author penned drawing on his extensive general knowledge to craft a vivid picture of places and situations he had never been within any great distance of himself - it was kind of his thing. Hugely popular in his day, naturally his works were turned into films, and while he would be best known for his marine-based Hornblower character, it is this effort that made for his most endearing adaptation, a firm favourite of movie buffs from its first appearance back in the early nineteen-fifties, and famously snaring the perennially popular Bogart his only Oscar.

No wonder, as when you see him here, he is at his most loveable and charismatic, one of the true rough diamonds of the cinema, but it takes two to tango, and this was in the main a two-hander, the other star being Hepburn. If Bogart liked anything more than his whisky, it was to grumble, and he had a field day on this film (he once complained of Hepburn, "She talks at you as if you were a microphone") for director John Huston decided against shooting it all in a studio or on less exotic locations and took his cast and crew, lock, stock and barrel to Central Africa, supposedly for the authenticity Forester strove for in his writing, but also because he fancied big game hunting.

Stories vary as to how successful Huston was at this, but apparently he regretted the attempt eventually, not least because the African climate was conducive to all sorts of maladies that everyone around him fell prey to. Hepburn, who loved the Continent, wrote her own entertaining book on the making, painting an indelible picture of the personalities that clashed during the production as well as exactly what she found so captivating about the place, but in her curious mix of the prim and the sardonic, she did share why everyone except Huston and Bogart came down with dysentery: it was because the boat they were all staying on was using the lake water their sewage was running into for drinking. The director and her co-star remained immune because all they drank was whisky.

That making of is such a terrific story in itself (spawning one movie, Clint Eastwood's White Hunter, Black Heart) that it threatens to overshadow the film. Yet while all that may be in your mind as you watch, this is one experience that has a way of casting its spell over you in that old time movie magic way, and much of that is to do with how incredibly romantic it is. The leads may not have got on offscreen, but onscreen they have some of the finest chemistry you will ever witness, as Rosie and Charlie's romance burgeons apace and proves as irresistible to the audience as they are to each other. When Rosie persuades Charlie to take revenge on the Germans who have effectively killed Samuel, he strings her along so far, but eventually her crazy allure is too much to ignore and he is getting up to such business as making torpedoes for her to sink an enemy battlesteamer. And it's funny enough to be a comedy, too, not to mention one of the sweetest, albeit implausible, yarns to emerge from the Golden Age. There's something about The African Queen. Music by Allan Gray.

[Masses of extras on Eureka's Blu-ray edition:

Hardbound Slipcase
PLUS: A LIMITED EDITION 60-PAGE Perfect Bound Collector's book featuring archival writing on the film
Spectacular 4K restoration by ITV and Paramount Pictures
Uncompressed LPCM audio (original mono)
Isolated music & effects track
Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
Audio commentary by cinematographer Jack Cardiff
Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen, a comprehensive documentary about the making of the film
A video interview with co-screenwriter Peter Viertel, author of White Hunter, Black Heart, by filmmaker Michael Scheingraber
Audio recording of an on-stage NFT discussion about the film with Anjelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen from 2010
Audio recording of the Guardian interview with John Huston at the National Film Theatre in 1981, discussing his work and career
New video interview with critic Kim Newman
New video interview with historian Neil Sinyard
Lux Radio Theater adaptation from 1952 with Humphrey Bogart and Greer Garson
Original theatrical trailer.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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