Sometimes, even classics fall through the cracks into oblivion. John Huston's beloved 1951 hit The African Queen, the picture that brought together Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for their first (and only) screen pairing, had not been available on home video in the United States since the VHS era, because the original negative had deteriorated so badly, a DVD release would have looked like mud.
But after an extensive frame-by-frame restoration, The African Queen (Paramount, $26 DVD, $40 Blu-ray; in stores today) looks better than ever, especially on Blu-ray; the image is so clean you can count the whiskers on Bogart's stubble. Some shots are still a little soft, and the resolution of the high-def image makes the blue-screen work stand out even more than before,but this is probably as good as the film is ever going to look.
After almost six decades, The African Queen remains a thrilling and captivating adventure - the sort of film parents can watch with their kids, and everyone will be equally entertained - even though its bulk consists of two people sailing down a river in a rickety boat, hoping somehow to sink a German gunboat during World War I. But what a river, and what a pair! Bogart, Hepburn and Huston had all fallen from favor when they collaborated on the project, their legendary status in Hollywood threatened by the brewing McCarthyism that would derail the careers of many other artists.
So without the sanction or financing of a major studio, they hightailed it to Africa - specifically to Uganda and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) - essentially using the same tactics independent filmmakers today use to raise their budgets. The African Queen was a smash when it was released to theaters and remains a sparkling entertainment today, a textbook example of how old-school Hollywood star power can trounce even the biggest names of today. Just imagine, say, Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler in its lead roles. The result would curdle the blood.
The DVD and Blu-ray include only one extra, but it's fantastic. The hour-long documentary Embracing Chaos: The Making of The African Queen uses new interviews with directors and critics (including Martin Scorsese, who can still remember the exact day and theater in which he first saw the film as a child); vintage clips with Hepburn, Huston and cinematographer Jack Cardiff, and comments by still-living members of the crew to recount the tumultuous story behind the film's creation.
The documentary, which also makes ample use of a priceless trove of beautiful photographs shot on the set, is a perfect chaser to the main attraction, packed with great anecdotes and information. The script (co-written by the great film critic James Agee) originally ended on a downbeat note, like the C.S. Forester novel it was based on. But once shooting got underway, the chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn was so great, Huston realized he was really making a comedy and could not possibly kill off his two stars, so a writer was flown in to craft a new ending. The filmmakers also had to contend with everything from an attack by soldier ants to rampant dysentery and malaria (they had unwittingly been drinking unfiltered water). Only Bogart and Huston never got sick, because the only thing they ever drank was booze.
Huston also started every day on the set by getting his rifle and heading into the wild to hunt an elephant. Hepburn disapproved of the habit as "piggish," so the director took her along on one of his expeditions. They were almost trampled by a stampeding herd, but the adrenaline rush was so great that Hepburn changed her mind about Huston's obsession. The documentary has plenty more stories to tell, and all of them add to your appreciation of the movie. With this new release, a lost treasure has been found and given its due.