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African Queen (1951)

by on 2010/04/02

The African Queen is the name of both a boat and the story of its journey.  Set in the dawning days of Great War Africa, the movie begins with a focus on missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn).  World events soon conspire to sweep her along with itinerant riverboat captain, Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart).  Their flight from both Germans and enlisted Africans makes for a quaint but fun adventure in the vein of a golden age serial crossed with a buddy/road comedy.

Rarely do I feel the need to address form over content but, in The African Queen, I find the matter almost impossible to avoid.  The film has been officially unavailable for many years now, unusual given its critical stature and relative level of fame.  I originally saw it as a child, in late-night television presentations, before the onset of the cable explosion.  My memories were vague, but warm.  Until now, however, I could never be sure whether that favour was a function of the film’s merit, or simply nostalgia.

The restoration of the film on DVD and Blu-ray, however, clarifies things both literally and figuratively.  The visual quality is stunning.  For a film of sixty-odd years, I was surprised by how its clean, sharp image blooms with saturated colour.  The only down-side is how obvious rear-screen compositing becomes with the added fidelity.  As I understand, it remains a marked improvement over the original version, which suffered from a prominent halo effect around the actors during certain scenes.

It’s a common complaint now, the difficulty of emoting against a blue or green screen.  The actors seem to have little such difficulty here.  While Bogart is rightly praised for this Oscar-winning role, my greatest admiration was for Hepburn.  Here she demonstrates the power of a skilled actor to take something good and make it great.  Her performance leaves me wondering just how Hollywood could possibly have written her off so easily, and so frequently, at various points in her career.

Regardless of effects and levels of recognition, I found The African Queen highly satisfying.  I’ve finally recaptured the sense of fun that marked my childhood viewing of it. While I can’t justifiably defend the film as history’s most important, I can maintain my affection, secure in the confirmation that my fondness is more worthy than wishful.

* * * *

Rated G

105 minutes

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