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'African Queen' finally arrives on DVD -- in fine form

John DeFore

An old boat lurched into port this week, so long after its expected arrival that all but the most dedicated observers had stopped watching for it on the horizon. Who cares why it took so long or how it got on course? "The African Queen" is here at last.

Amazingly, this 1951 adventure, surely among the most fondly remembered films ever made, has never been released on DVD in the U.S. Those of us who know its beats by heart learned them via replaying "Queen" on VHS or, at best, laserdisc.

Reportedly, the original film elements were in rough shape, making a high-quality transfer difficult. But Blu-ray repays restorers' efforts, and the Technicolor images shot by Jack Cardiff look amazing here, with color so vibrant you might forget the movie isn't widescreen. (A DVD edition is available now as well, as is an overpriced "commemorative box set" containing a reprint of Katharine Hepburn's memoir of the film's production.)

"Queen" gathers some of Hollywood's greatest talents — stars Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, director John Huston, screenwriter James Agee — but even so, its success was unlikely. The story was shot largely on location in Africa in an era before such shoots were common, and the filmmakers had to battle disease, pestilence and the sinking of their primary set.

Hepburn's decision to set a good example for her boozing colleagues by avoiding alcohol backfired. They didn't drink the water, so she's the one who wound up vomiting between takes. (As a result, she looks convincingly ravaged as a spinster missionary unaccustomed to primitive settings.) There's even a story, perhaps untrue, that a hunter hired to supply food was passing off human flesh in the guise of wild game.

Hardship worked in the film's favor, lending an authentic air of desperation to the tale of an unkempt ship captain who is persuaded by Hepburn's stranded missionary to try to blow up a German ship during World War I. The comically mismatched pair survive rapids, gunfire and leeches as they make their way downriver, and along the way they develop a charming, past-their-prime romance. Like the boat they have to kick, tinker and drag toward its destination, the characters have little left to hope for in life, and we love them more for finding reasons not to give up.

Paramount's release of the film looks and sounds splendid but is surprisingly lacking in some of the things we've come to expect from even a run-of-the-mill catalog revival: There's no audio commentary and no vintage trailer here, for instance.

But the hourlong documentary is solid, offering good interview footage both old (Huston and Hepburn, separately, on the Dick Cavett show) and recent (Cardiff, who died in 2009; a slew of biographers and historians; the always-enlightening Martin Scorsese).

Fans will have to shell out separately if they want to dig deeper into the classic's backstory: Warner Bros. long ago released Clint Eastwood's film of the novel inspired by the production, "White Hunter, Black Heart."

But then, that film's dark vision of a Huston-like character doesn't really belong in an "African Queen" reissue. Whatever bad behavior its makers might have exhibited, there's an innocence and timeless humor to the final product that deserves to stand on its own.