World War I has begun, and, under the stifling sun of German East Africa, two British missionaries are preoccupied with converting the natives into Methodists. Middle-aged, man-of-God Samuel Sayer (Robert Morley) and his spinster sister, Rose (Katharine Hepburn), brave the climate, hoping to save souls with rousing sermons and holy songs that, disappointingly, seem only to amuse the natives. Frustrated, the two look forward to the increasingly rare visits from their link with the modern world, scruffy, Canadian boatman Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who delivers mail, sundry items and precious tea.
Despite Charlie’s warnings of growing war tensions, the Sayers stay on in the remote village but are soon confronted with German troops who torch the village and take the natives hostage. In the lonely aftermath, Samuel succumbs to a fever. Frightened, grief-stricken and alone, Rose is grateful when Charlie returns. Charlie quickly helps Rose bury Samuel and then suggests they plan to leave the area on his weatherworn steamboat, The African Queen.
Aboard the rickety vessel, Rose and Charlie discuss traveling along the serpentine river. Charlie explains the British troops will not be able to get past the German warship Louisa, which patrols the lake into which the river eventually empties. He also notes the river is too treacherous to navigate because of its numerous rapids, water falls, a riverside German fort and, provided they get that far, armed Louisa, waiting in the lake. Rose, however, finds solace in a plan to make the trip downriver to ambush the Louisa with torpedoes made from explosives Charlie has on board. Charlie balks, but Rose insists they have nothing to loose and should attempt to help their countries in their times of need.
Begrudgingly, Charlie lurches the boat down the murky river through the jungle, knowing their path is next to impossible but also well aware there is really nowhere else they can go. He quickly teaches Rose how to steer the vessel and assist with other ad hoc, first-mate duties. As the days go by; the dark river turns white with rapids, and danger looms at every turn, prim Rose and salty Charlie make many discoveries, not the least of which is the strong affection growing between them.
When maverick film director John Huston decided to helm an independently financed film adaptation of C.S. Forester’s novel The African Queen, few expected it would turn into one of the most popular American films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Indeed, Huston’s choices of cast and crew have much to do with the film’s enduring appeal. From the heavyweight star power of Bogart and Hepburn to the finely tuned banter in scribe James Agee’s screenplay, The African Queen boasts a superlative pedigree of talented artists, including legendary director of photography Jack Cardiff, BSC (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), who mounted the project in lush, incandescent Technicolor.
Shot on location in Africa, Huston insisted on color-drenched images to maximize the beauty of the jungle. Cardiff rose to the occasion, managing to incorporate the hulking Technicolor camera into the small barges built to shoot on the water. “He said it was going to be easy,” remarks Cardiff in the supplemental section of Paramount Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray presentation of The African Queen. Cardiff reminisces about Huston, recalling the director assumed there would be no need for lighting rigs on location in Africa. While Cardiff agreed the bright sun would be the primary source of lighting, he wisely insisted on taking two lights and a generator. “Ironically,” Cardiff muses, “ the first two weeks of shooting it rained every day, but we were able to shoot because I had my two lamps.”
Cardiff’s striking and vivid images of The African Queen continue to radiate in this new Blu-ray. Using elements from the film’s 2009 digital restoration, this high-definition representation of Cardiff’s Technicolor work is reference quality. With deep, saturated colors and a wide range of blacks and shadows on display, there are fine details never before visible on home screens, including an essential amount of grain that gives the presentation an incredibly film-like texture. This new 1080p transfer is a revelation, returning to the images the exceptional depth and character originally intended. The monaural audio is solid, with some noise reduction employed to diminish age-related hiss.
The Blu-ray edition of this beloved American film has only one included supplement, and it is actually enough. Director Eric Young’s excellent hour-long documentary Embracing Chaos: Making the African Queen incorporates vintage interviews with Cardiff, Huston, Hepburn and Bogart and new and recent interviews with surviving crew members as well as film directors Nicholas Meyer and Martin Scorsese. Aboard, too, are historians Richard Schickel and Rudy Behlmer, as well as Bogart biographer Eric Lax. Presented in high-definition, this exceptional “making of” doc with its impressive array of participants, great behind-the-scenes footage and absorbing commentary is wonderfully crafted. All only adds to the experience of setting off on this legendary Hollywood journey once again, and, undoubtedly, longtime fans and newcomers will thoroughly enjoy this lush new presentation.