British Cinema, True Story

A Night To Remember (1958)

On this day, in April 1912, the White Star Line passenger ship R.M.S Titanic hit an iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic. In just a couple of hours this luxurious ship on her maiden voyage had sunk. 1523 passengers and crew perished in the freezing sea that night. There were only 705 survivors.

In the years following this disaster there have been many other shipping disasters, but even now, over 100 years later, the Titanic disaster is still the most famous of them all. Why is that?

I would say it’s due to several things. The ship was on her maiden voyage. The Titanic had been marketed as being unsinkable, and was the biggest and most luxurious ship afloat at the time; this disaster was unthinkable really because of all of that.

So many of the men aboard bravely went to their deaths after giving women their place aboard the lifeboats. There were also several moving stories such as the band playing as the ship sank from under them, trying desperately to calm frightened passengers with music. Mr and Mrs Strauss choosing to die together rather than be parted etc.

There were too few lifeboats aboard to save everyone. The ones that were aboard were not filled to capacity. This is one of the most shocking parts of the whole disaster for me.

Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film is based on Walter Lord’s non-fiction novel about the sinking. Lord spoke to Titanic survivors at length, and he published their accounts in his 1955 novel A Night To Remember.

For me Baker’s film is the best screen depiction out there about this disaster. It accurately captures the behaviour of people on the night, and details the horrors of the sinking. James Cameron’s 1997 film was pretty accurate in terms of recreating the ships opulent interiors more so than this film, but Baker’s film makes us feel like we are there on that cold April night. It does a great job of capturing how frightening and chaotic the sinking was.

Interestingly the film depicts the ship as going down in one piece. Several witnesses claimed this was what happened. When Robert Ballard found the Titanic wreck in 1985, the ship was on the seabed in two pieces.  We’ll never know for sure if it broke above the surface or when it hit the seabed, we only know that is in two pieces now. For anyone who believes it broke apart above the surface, try and remember that this film was made before the wreck was discovered and was based on witness testimony.

A Night To Remember focuses on the experiences of several passengers and crew. We follow the ship from her launch in Southampton, out to France and Ireland, and then out into the Atlantic on to New York.

The character we follow the most in this is Second Officer Charles Lightoller(Kenneth More). This is one of my favourite films featuring More, and he is excellent as the proud and heroic officer trying to save lives and keep panic from spreading as the boats are lowered. For the first half of the film More is really just in a supporting role, as the film goes on he becomes the main focus.

There is an incredible cast of British talent in this. Standout performances for me are Kenneth More, Michael Goodliffe(as ships builder Thomas Andrews) , Anthony Bushell (as Captain Rostron, the Captain of the rescue ship The Carpathia),Ralph Michael(as Mr. Yates, a gambler) , Kenneth Griffith (as wireless operator John Phillips)and Laurence Naismith(as Captain Smith).

A young David McCallum has a supporting role playing wireless operator Harold Bride. James Bond fans should keep their eyes peeled for Desmond Llewelyn(Q)as a steward in the steerage section.

I think Goodliffe gives the best performance as the devastated Mr. Andrews. In the scene where Andrews calmly awaits his fate, Goodliffe has this haunting look on his face that makes you realise that Andrews has mentally removed himself from the current situation(he is there in body, but in mind he has long gone.)Anyone else catch that he is staring at a painting entitled Approach To The New World? In his situation that title could be seen to refer to the possibility that an afterlife may await him next.  Goodliffe is a much underrated actor, and I think A Night To Remember is his finest screen hour.

Several scenes in this always make me cry every time I watch. The passengers at the stern as the ship sinks who start praying in different languages. The old steward finding the little boy and realising they are most likely going to die(as the ship sinks he hugs the boy and says “we’ll find mummy, we’ll soon find her”). Mr. Andrews persuading the young honeymoon couple to get to a lifeboat or jump overboard. The band playing on as the ship sinks.  Mr. Andrews pleading with a young stewardess to put on a lifejacket. Mrs Strauss refusing to leave her husband and get into a boat.

One of the saddest scenes focuses on a first class couple (Honor Blackman and John Merivale)saying goodbye as she gets into a lifeboat with their children; the father (having had the truth of the situation from Mr. Andrews)knows he is more than likely never going to see his beloved family ever again. I love the look on Merivale’s face as he plays that scene, you know he is scared and brokenhearted.

A powerful depiction of courage and tragedy. This film is my favourite of all the films out there about this disaster, and it has many moments that I have found hard to forget, such as the young couple killed by the falling funnel, Andrews preparing himself to die, Ismay(Frank Lawton) breaking down in the lifeboat after the ship has sunk, the baker getting drunk to try and protect himself from the effects of the cold water, and the passengers at the stern praying and screaming.

My favourite scenes are the following. The steerage passengers playing football with the chunks of ice from the iceberg than landed on deck. Ismay in the dining room demonstrating how steady and secure the ship is, only for a woman to knock the table and shake everything.  Lightoller trying to persuade the gambler to join him on top of the collapsible boat, only for him to swim off. Andrews speech to the young honeymoon couple. Molly Brown(Tucker McGuire) in the lifeboat saying “you get fresh with me son, and I’ll throw you overboard!”. The Titanic leaving Southampton. The passengers praying on the stern. Mr.Yates passing a young woman getting into a lifeboat a letter from him for her to mail to his sister. Murdoch’s(Richard Leech) accusatory look to Ismay when Murdoch sees him sitting in a lifeboat.

An excellent film filled with many excellent performances. I highly recommend seeing the Blu-ray version of this, the picture is so clear that it looks as though it had been made today.

I think it’s a testament to Roy Ward Baker that his film about this disaster is the one that I return to again and again. I do like Cameron’s film, but Baker’s version got me interested in the real disaster itself and his version has a more realistic look to it. I highly recommend seeing both films though.

R.I.P to all the Titanic victims.

Any other fans? If you’ve never seen it I highly recommend it.

 

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3 thoughts on “A Night To Remember (1958)”

  1. I actually have the Criterion Blu-Ray version, and the film is so crisp that it really feels like the movie was just made. And I definitely agree that Baker’s take on this is far more “human” than Cameron’s later spectacle…

    Liked by 1 person

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