African Queen
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African Queen

Tom Laughlin of ‘Billy Jack’ Fame wrote a definitive guide for writing a movie script that details nine elements that required for a successful story. There are aspects such as romance, clearly defined hero and villain as well as a ticking clock to ultimate danger. It is extremely rare for a film to present all of the listed points but a few notably exceptional films have done so. One of these rare and wonderful gems just received the home entertainment treatment it deserved; ‘The African Queen.' Not only is this a nearly perfect screenplay but it represents the convergence of talent both behind and in front of the camera that occurs perhaps once in a generation. Even though the film is over half a century old, it stands up exceptionally well to the test of time. If any movie deserves a re-release on the high definition, it is this one. ‘African Queen’ is one of the best examples of cinema made, and a must see even for this current, computer jaded generation. I have several copies of this film already in my collection from VHS to one of the previous gray market DVD editions, but still, there was a sense of excitement upon hearing the announcement of a limited edition Blu-ray edition. It wasn’t just the prospect of new extras or the increase in resolution; it was the validation that the studio still acknowledges the historical cinematic greatness of classics like this one. Younger viewers should take note that this movie was made near the end of the golden age of the Hollywood studio system. Now it would be nearly impossible to assemble the amount of sheer talent that is boasted by this movie. It has been a long time coming, but at last this venerable piece of artistic expression is afforded the treatment it so richly deserved. Many film buffs have included this title on their most wanted list only to wait year after year with little hope in sight. Then Paramount heard the plaintive cries of fans and stepped up to the plate big time. They didn’t just add it on to their continuing ‘Centennial Celebration’ series opting instead for a full-blown box set.

At the heart of any great movie is the story and this one comes from a fantastic pedigree. The original bestselling novel was the work of C.S. Forester, a man who knew a lot about adventures on shipboard as evident by his Horatio Hornblower nautical series. While the titular craft here is much smaller in scale that the high seas faring ships Forester was accustomed to writing about every bit of the high adventure and drama are brought to bear here. The novel adapted for the screen by James Agee. He didn’t have a long resume, and this screenplay was one of his early scripts, but this certainly was one to hold as a claim to fame. After many films revolving around the recently concluded World War II this story goes back a bit in time to the First World War were sibling missionaries, Samuel and Rose Sayer (Robert Morley and Katharine Hepburn) are working in German-occupied East Africa. Their lifeline to the rest of the world, supplies, and correspondence is Canadian born boat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who transverses the treacherous river in his broken down boat, ‘The African Queen.' When war officially breaks out between Germany and Britain the Germans deploy a gunboat to burn down the missionary beating Sam in the process inflicting injuries that prove to be fatal. With the river blockaded Rose devises a plan to retrofit the boat with a torpedo and sink the German boat freeing the river.

This movie was an action flick far ahead of its time. Having a strong, resourceful woman was novel for the fifties but helped continue the trend of strong women necessitated by the recent war. Hepburn was already famous with quite a career when she took on this movie, and her personal relationship with Bogart only fueled the popular clamor for the film. Ultimately this film remains one of the greatest movie romances ever. Released in 1951 this was a World War II film produced soon after the actual period. The source novel came from C. S. Forester, a prolific author famous for his depiction of naval battles. In the novel, the setting was World War I, allowing for a smooth transition of Germans as the antagonists. The change to Nazis gave the audience a familiar source of evil, one the public became accustomed to through the myriad of war movies released during the long years of the conflict. This familiarity was also a prominent reason the film was such an overwhelming success. The vast majority of WWII films focused on the brutality of combat. The plot of this story driven by the emotional journey taken by two people, opposites in most ways, as they strove to survive a conflict beyond anything they have ever experienced. Many romances stories have examined love blossoming amidst the bloody reality of war, but few have done so with the same unique penance as exhibited here.

The strength of the film is the exquisite care afforded the all-important character development. The characters painted with a fine brush by the author was only the foundation for the depth of the emotional intensity of the story. It was how two of the world’s greatest actors combining for a synergistic experience that continues to impress audiences with the sheer powerful performances captured here. Directing this movie was one of the true legends of films; John Huston. He embodied what it meant to be a filmmaker mastering production, writing, direction and acting. We would share an Academy Award nomination with Agee for the adaptation. His list of films reads like the syllabus of a master’s class in filmmaking. The style of his direction here is impeccable. There is not a single frame wasted, or camera shot poorly set. He paces the film gently t first affording the audience ample time to become familiar with the characters and emotionally vested in their predicaments. This Blu-ray edition gives an unprecedented view of Huston’s cinematic vision. The high definition video reveals the amazing background and lighting that creates the difficult river voyage. The audio is much better than I had antedated with a mono soundtrack. It upconverted nicely to emulate an old time theater adding to the experience. In all you will not just watch this movie; you will experience it. The American Film Institute has recognized this film in their much-lauded list of the finest achievement in the cinematic arts. The AFI included the movie in both of their lists of the greatest films ever and singled out both Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as among the greatest American screen legends. This film offered the magnificent opportunity to watch them share the screen together.

Posted 03/27/2010            03/10/2017

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