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Blu-ray Reviews: The African Queen

Originally published in Sound and Image, 2011
Last updated 17 August 2012

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The African Queen
1951 - Beyond Home Entertainment
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Peter Swanwick and Richard Marner

Movie: Picture: Sound: Extras:

Set in Africa and actually -- rarely for the period -- shot in Africa, to the modern sensibility this movie seems at the start to be somewhat paternalistic to the natives. But except for the opening section they rarely even make an appearance. Instead it is a road trip -- or river trip -- movie. Circumstances (a German atrocity in the First World War) throw Humphrey Bogart, a rough Canadian riverboat trader, and Katharine Hepburn, a missionary, together. He being male, she being female, this forty-something couple move from stiff formality to love.

Meanwhile, they determine that they can perhaps make a contribution to the war effort, if only they proceed down the Ulanga River.

Doesn't sound enticing? There's a reason why it scores a pretty good 8.0/10 on the Internet Movie Database: it builds to become surprisingly intense. And how can you be a real movie fan unless you've experienced both Hepburn and Bogart at their best?

By the way, watch out for the tease around 33 minutes in. Pretty risque for 1951 I'd say.

If you examine the star ratings, you will see that I've only given this movie 3.5 out of 5 for picture quality. But that's a good thing! Hey, this movie is sixty years old, and Technicolor to boot. I'd say 70%, compared to the best modern movie, is pretty good indeed. Of course, the Techicolor colour is a little strange. In part that would be due to the natural balance of the three strip process employed, but also thanks to the arguably idiosyncratic views on colour of Natalie Kalmus, who set the standards for the company for fifteen years. She was gone (thankfully, in the eyes of some movie makers, who her found her very demanding) by 1951, but her influence on colour balance continued.

To the modern eye, the palette is biased somewhat towards browns and greens. However this only lasts a moment, because behind the human eye is a mightily powerful 'Auto White Balance' processor which does wonders on making it all look quite natural.

It was made a couple of years before widescreen, so it is presented in the 'Academy Aspect' ratio of 1.37:1. This is presented within a 16:9 full HD frame by means of black pillarboxes to the left and right. The clarity of the picture is good, if not brilliant. A banner on the box proclaims 'Special Restoration Edition', but no explanation is provided. Certainly the picture is clean, free of obvious scratches and noise, and the occasional colour registration problems of the three strip colour process do not seem obvious, and perhaps have been digitally removed.

Sound wise, you get mono losslessly delivered in two channel 24 bit LPCM. I imagine that this has also been processed. It is certainly clean, with no obvious scratchiness or distortion. Indeed, it does not seem to be constrained by the 'Academy Curve' frequency response normal for the period, avoiding the usual period 'pinched' feel. Of course, the 144dB dynamic range afforded by the 24 bits of resolution allows the track to faithfully reproduce the entire noise floor which, I estimate, uses at least half that.

But that's quibbling over something that certainly doesn't degrade performance. A full Blu-ray movie collection should have this one within it. It looks good, sounds adequate, and is a fine story well-delivered.

Running time: 105 minutes
Picture: 1.37:1 (pillarboxes on 16:9 frame), 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC @ 23.22Mbps
Sound: English: LPCM 24/48 2/0.0 @ 2304kbps; Commentary (by Jack Cardiff): LPCM 16/48 2/0.0 @ 1536kbps
Subtitles: English
Extras: Documentary (1080p24 - 59 mins); 2 Slideshows (1080p24 - 4 mins); Trailer (1080i50 - 3 mins); Star profiles (Text)
Restrictions: Rated (Australian rating); Locked to Region B

The following video bitrate graph was generated by BDInfo 0.5.6:

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

Here are some comparisons between the Australian PAL DVD and the Australia Blu-ray version of this movie. The Blu-ray was supplied to me by Beyond Home Entertainment. The PAL DVD is the MRA Entertainment Group Pty Ltd version, purchased by me in 2003.

At the top of each is the full frame (suitably shrunk down) used in the comparison, with a 250 pixel wide detail from the frame underneath. The left side is from the PAL DVD. The image was captured digitally from the disc, scaled up from its native 720 by 576 pixel resolution to 768 by 576 (to present in the correct aspect ratio) by the application. I then scaled it, in order for it to be comparable to the Blu-ray version, to 1,440 by 1,080 pixels.

The detail is from that last scaled version, and has not been rescaled again. The right side is from the Australian Blu-ray. This has not been scaled at all. Different applications were used to capture the two frames, so some caution should be exercised in judging colour and brightness.

For visitors from NTSC lands, generally the PAL DVD is just a touch sharper than the NTSC DVD.

The Blu-ray is not going to win any prizes for having the sharpest and most detailed picture ever, but the colour on this version has that distinctive Technicolor look, and the detail is immensely greater than the DVD.

© 2002-2012, Stephen Dawson