The African Queen is one of John Huston’s most iconic films, Huston’s penultimate collaboration with his old drinking buddy, Humphrey Bogart, before Beat the Devil. Bogart stars as steamboat captain Charlie Allmat, a role that won him his only Oscar. It also stars Katherine Hepburn as Rose Sayer, sister of a British missionary. As World War 1 comes close and the African village where her brother, also a missionary, was working is destroyed, they have to get out—and they have to sink a German gunboat along their journey up the river back to “civilisation”.
Based on a novel by C.S. Forester, it features one of Hepburn’s’ best performances despite the fact that the production was a famous fiasco. Bogart and Huston were drinking heavily, which may have saved them from getting sick with dysentery during the shoot like everyone else, including Hepburn. Bogart was miserable in Africa, but Hepburn was fascinated, and wanted to know about every single thing, annoying Bogart endlessly. The production was crazy, with Huston helming one of his biggest productions of the 50s but also distracted by wanting to go big-game hunting and such (as later alluded to in Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart—which was written by African Queen co-screenwriter Peter Viertel.) Quite a myth has grown up around the making of the film, as can be seen in the extras included in this set.
The result was a great Hollywood adventure story, anchored by a pair of fantastic performances. Bogart did better stuff before and after, but it was beautifully filmed by Jack Cardiff in amazing Technicolor. Bogart and Hepburn had great chemistry in a classic “opposites attract” love story peppered with loads of action. It’s one of Bogart’s lighter roles, with some jokey lines giving evidence to the fact that he had more of a range than he is sometimes given credit for. He did end up doing a couple of comedies towards the end of his career, including Sabrina and We’re No Angels, before his working life was prematurely ended by Esophageal cancer.
I think The African Queen is the movie that really caps off that era of Huston’s films—the later ‘50s were not kind to him, but had a nice string of films in the ’60s and ’70s including Fat City, Reflections in a Golden Eye and Wise Blood. He definitely had one the weirdest careers ever—with Escape to Victory, Annie, and Under the Volcano all in a row near the end. Huston of course also as he got older became known as character actor most notably in Chinatown. Everyone involved in The African Queen may have done better things, but it’s a great story with comedy that doesn’t seem that forced, and memorable performances from all.
The set includes a commentary from Jack Cardiff about the challenges they faced during filming, a pretty solid hour-long documentary, a video interview with Viertel, a more recent audio recording between Angelica Huston and script supervisor Angela Allen, a 1981 NFT audio interview with Huston, a video interview with Kim Newman and one with Neil Sinyard, and a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation with Bogart and Greer Garson from 1952 (given that radio was still the dominant media form until the early 60s, radio adaptations of popular films were frequently made, often including some of the original cast.) The trailer and a 60-page booklet full of writing on the film round off the set.