A Night to Remember (1958)
Directed by: Roy Ward Baker
Starring: Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Ronald Allen, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell, Robert Ayres, Jill Dixon, John Cairney
James Cameron was certainly not the first. The Titanic story has been told on film many times since 1912 (yep, the first Titanic film came out just months after the event), but 1958’s A Night to Remember is widely regarded to be one of the finest – if not the finest.
Obviously it is tempting to compare A Night to Remember to the 1997 blockbuster, but I don’t really think that I would be doing either film a service. Not only do they choose to tell the story in entirely different ways — A Night to Remember is a subdued and largely factual retelling of events where Cameron’s main plot was a wholly fictitious melodrama; the two films are also separated by almost 40 years of radical developments in filmmaking in general and special effects in particular.
A Night to Remember is based on Walter Lord’s thoroughly researched book of the same name about the sinking of the Titanic, and mostly adheres to the facts (as they were known at the time). We follow along as the newly built luxury oceanliner sets off on her maiden voyage and get glimpses of life aboard, among the crew and the lowly steerage passengers as well as among the rich first-class passengers. The collision takes place about half an hour into the film, and the rest of the film depicts the efforts to deal with the situation and save lives.
There are no heroes or villains in this one. As a matter of fact, A Night to Remember doesn’t delve into the characters very much at all. Second officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) is the most prominent single character, along with a couple of radio operators (Kenneth Griffith and David McCallum). We do make several acquaintances as we see how various passengers and crew deal with the crisis: there’s the young family where the mother and three children go in the lifeboats while the father stays behind; they newlyweds who both stay on the ship until the end; the baker who decides to get drunk after giving up his seat in one lifeboat; and not least a group of Irish emigrants who fight to escape from the blocked off steerage sections. The film steers clear of melodrama and puts quite a lot of emphasis on the very restrained and polite manner in which some upper-class passengers handle the situation, but manages to convey drama and emotion nonetheless.
Giving this film added flavor is the subplot about the SS Californian, a ship that was only about ten miles away from Titanic as she sank, but failed to pick up on any of the distress calls that were broadcast. It is a story that I personally was not very familiar with and that I feel adds an extra dimension to the tragedy.
Acting is good all around, and the film is well paced and doesn’t stall despite clocking in at almost two hours. It’s also a good-looking movie, nicely shot and with decent production values. The sets were designed from photos of the actual ship’s interior and it all looks quite credible. While most of the exterior shots, particularly during the sinking, are obviously models, these scenes are well handled and look very nice.
The sinking ship, the rush to fill the lifeboats, the flooding of the lower levels, the increasing level of panic and, finally, the desperattion among the survivors in the water, along with the mixed attitudes among those lucky enough to be in one of the lifeboats — it all adds up to a nicely detailed and well rendered depiction of the disaster.
A Night to Remember is a dignified and very worthwhile take on the Titanic disaster, and should be appreciated particularly by those who felt James Cameron went a bit overboard in the melodrama department. On the other hand, fans of Cameron’s version might feel that this is a bit too much stiff upper lip, and will probably miss the spectacular VFX.