Thursday, April 14, marks 110 years since the sinking of White Star Line cruiser, the R.M.S. Titanic. Because of this anniversary, I viewed one of the earlier and most accurate films about the sinking.
“A Night to Remember” (1958) paints an honest depiction of the Titanic incident told through the eyes of passengers aboard the vessel and the vision of director Roy Ward Baker. It’s easy to understand the irony of the situation. The ship deemed unsinkable was dragged down to Davy Jones’ locker on its maiden voyage. Of course, this is a simple disaster film, but surprisingly “A Night to Remember” becomes more complex than most of the disaster genre. What makes this film so great is not the story being told, but how Baker chooses to tell it.
I don’t wish to continuously compare this film to James Cameron’s “Titanic” (1997), however I’ll use it to explain this important point. Cameron focuses on two characters’ romantic, Romeo and Juliet adventure aboard the ship to captivate his audience. Also added in the mix is a precious gem, a villainous suitor, a loaded gun (or several) and of course, sex. All of these elements are true to Hollywood, however they are not true to historical events. The Titanic’s legacy stretches far beyond that of Jack and Rose. What Roy Ward Baker gives us is something more honest. He displays the grim tale through the eyes of not just two protagonists, but several people of different hierarchy among the ship’s crew, and multiple passengers. Sure, not every character is a real historical figure, but the characters that are fictional serve as windows into the multiple demographics aboard the ship. We see the young couple that refuses to leave each other behind like so many young couples aboard the real vessel. We see the passengers that became violent and in their distress did anything they could to stay alive like so many others. We even see a window into the brutal reality of many children aboard the ship that had their lives taken from them that night. Every character decision that Baker made was reflective of not a single real person, but multiple real people.
Baker competently displayed decisions and actions of people that were true historical figures aboard the ship. He does so in an unbiased way but stays honest to history. Second officer Charles Lightoller, played in the film by Kenneth Moore may not have physically saved all of the people he does in the film, but through his leadership saved those people in real life. J. Bruce Ismay wasn’t depicted as a villain, however he still took a seat on the lifeboat that someone else could have had. He took a seat despite being partially responsible for not having enough lifeboats to begin with. In real life Ismay was harshly criticized for doing this, but panic can lead people to make desperate and irrational decisions.
Suspense is built fairly well throughout the film. There is a clever incline in tension among passengers that begins as a casual disbelief. Seriously, how could the ship be damaged if it’s unsinkable? They were unaware of people drowning in the boiler rooms below. It was interesting to see the differences in behavior between so many passengers -- some clinging to life and attacking others, some drinking away the thought of death, and some accepting their fate and putting on their best clothing. Appreciation should be given too to how involved Carpathia was within the film. Evidently, they tried their hardest to save the sinking passengers.
Surprisingly the ship does not split in half as it sinks at the end of “A Night to Remember.” I wasn’t aware beforehand that the ship splitting was not confirmed until 1985. Special effects were fantastic in the film so I’m curious about how the split would have been manageable if it were proven beforehand.
Lastly, Roy Ward Baker offers a bold finish, tributing the film to those who lost their lives that night. He uses his vision to show not only how those unfortunate souls died, but respectfully conveys how their deaths were able to change modern standards. After the incident heavy safety standards became implemented on cruise ships, especially pertaining to lifeboats. “Today there are lifeboats for all,” is part of the announcement made at the film’s finale. Those deaths were not in vain.
For anyone at Rhode Island College that is pursuing film, or simply finds interest in it, I highly recommend “A Night to Remember.” It remains one of the most accurate depictions of the sinking, and much could be learned from both technical aspects, and the storytelling format of the film and how it portrays these true events. If you wish to watch it, the film is available on Pluto TV and the Criterion Channel.