Disaster, Films I Love

A Night To Remember (1958)

On April 10th, 1912, the White Star Line passenger ship, R.M.S Titanic set out on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. There were more than two thousand people travelling onboard the ship. The Titanic hit an iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic on the evening of the 14th of April. Just a couple of hours later this luxurious ship had sunk to the bottom of the sea. 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 around the world, some have involved even greater numbers of casualties, but even now over 100 years later the Titanic sinking remains the most famous of them all. There is also still a tremendous amount of interest in this disaster and in the ship itself. Why is that? Well, I would say it’s due to several things. The ship was on her maiden voyage when she sank. The Titanic had also been marketed as being an unsinkable ship, and was the biggest and most luxurious ship afloat at the time. This disaster was unthinkable really because of all of that.

                                         Murdoch sees the iceberg. Screenshot by me.

I think the Titanic disaster also lingers in the mind because so many of the men aboard bravely went to their deaths after giving women their place aboard the lifeboats. The steerage passengers were also forcibly kept from getting to the boat deck until the lifeboats were nearly all launched. 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 some soothing music. Mr and Mrs Strauss choosing to die together rather than be parted etc. There were also too few lifeboats aboard to save everyone travelling on that voyage; the lifeboats that were onboard were not filled up to their full passenger capacity, this (along with how the steerage passengers were treated) is one of the most shocking parts of the whole disaster for me.

Director Roy Ward Baker and producer William MacQuitty (who actually saw the Titanic launched when he was a boy) made this film in 1958. Their film is based upon Walter Lord’s non-fiction book about the sinking. Lord researched the disaster and he spoke to the Titanic survivors at length. He then published their accounts of what happened that night in his 1955 book called A Night To Remember.

Baker’s film wasn’t the first film to be made about the Titanic. There had been some earlier films made about this disaster. The first Titanic film was Saved From The Titanic (1912), this film starred Dorothy Gibson who was a real life Titanic survivor. The second was Night and Ice (1912)a German film all about the sinking. The third was Titanic (1953), this features Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as an estranged married couple travelling on the doomed ship.  I think that Baker’s film is the best screen depiction out there of this disaster. 

Baker’s film accurately captures the behaviour of people on the night and I think it also does a superb job of depicting in great detail 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 was, but it is Baker’s film which makes me feel like I am actually there with these people on that cold April night. The real Fourth Officer of the Titanic, Joseph Boxhall, served as the technical advisor for the film throughout the shoot.  

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Passengers try to escape the sea as it crashes through the ship. Screenshot by me.

Baker’s film also does a great job of capturing how frightening and chaotic the sinking was. I like how his film focuses on a variety of different characters from across all three of the class divisions found onboard the ship and shows how they react to the sinking. I also like how the stories of many of the real passengers and crew are focused upon, instead of the film primarily focusing on fictional characters (although the second class couple and the Irish steerage group are fictional characters) like Cameron’s film mainly did. 

I also think that Baker’s film is shot in a way that gives it an almost documentary look. It’s like we’ve somehow dropped in on the real events as they are unfolding and have become helpless onlookers to the disaster. This effect coupled with the superb performances and period recreation, gives the film a realism which Cameron’s version lacks I think.   

Interestingly Baker’s film also depicts the ship as going down in one piece during the sinking. Several witnesses claimed this was what happened, but others claimed it broke apart before going down. 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 did so 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 it was based upon the witness testimony recorded at the time.

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The Titanic sinks. Screenshot by me.

A Night To Remember focuses on the experiences of several passengers and crew travelling on the ship. We follow the Titanic from her launch in Southampton and out to France and Ireland to pick up more passengers. We then see the ship move out into the Atlantic travelling on to New York. When the ship hits an iceberg panic and chaos reign as the passengers and crew try escape the sinking ship.

The Titanic bridge crew try to signal a ship that is very close to them (The Californian) for help, but they get no response from that ship. The Titanic wireless message for help is picked up by The Carpathia, but that ship is some hours away from them, but despite their distance they make their way to them as quickly as they can. Once the Titanic sinks, a new hell arrives as the survivors not in lifeboats try to survive in the freezing ocean. 

The character we follow the most in this film is Second Officer Charles Lightoller(Kenneth More). This is one of my favourite films featuring Kenneth More, I think that 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 Kenneth is really just in a supporting role, but as the film goes on though he ends up becoming the main focal point.

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Kenneth More as Lightoller. Screenshot by me.

There is an incredible cast of British talent in this. Standout performances for me are Kenneth More (as Lightoller, the highest ranking Titanic officer to survive the sinking). Michael Goodliffe(as Thomas Andrews, the designer and builder of the Titanic). Anthony Bushell (as Captain Rostron, the Captain of the rescue ship Carpathia).Ralph Michael(as Mr. Yates, a gambler). Kenneth Griffith (as John Phillips, one of the Titanic’s wireless operators)and Laurence Naismith(as the Titanic’s Captain Edward 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 Michael Goodliffe gives the best performance in the film 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 and emotionally removed himself from the current situation(he is there in body, but in his mind he has long since gone.)

                                       Andrews prepares for his death. Screenshot by me.

Anyone else catch that Andrews 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 that A Night To Remember could well be his finest screen hour.                

Several scenes in this always make me cry every time I watch them. The passengers at the stern 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 he says to him”we’ll find mummy, we’ll soon find her”). Mr. Andrews persuading the young honeymoon couple to get into 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.

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The steward and the boy. Screenshot by me.

One of the saddest scenes focuses on a first class couple (Honor Blackman and John Merivale)saying goodbye. As the wife gets into a lifeboat with the couples children, the father who has had the truth of the situation from Mr. Andrews, knows full well that he is more than likely never going to see his beloved family ever again.

                             Saying goodbye to his wife and children. Screenshot by me.

I love the look on Merivale’s face as he plays that scene, he shows how scared and brokenhearted this man is and how he is trying to keep a brave face for the sake of his family. It makes me think about the many families that night who had to go through such a parting in reality. 

This film is a powerful depiction of courage and of tragedy. This film is my favourite of all the films out there about this disaster and it has many moments in it that I have found extremely hard to forget. Scenes such as the young couple being killed by the falling funnel. Wailing and screaming beginning to be heard coming from people in the sea after the ship sinks. Andrews preparing himself to die. Ismay(Frank Lawton) breaking down in the lifeboat as he sees the ship sinking. The woman slipping as she gets into a lifeboat and is left hanging between the ship and the lifeboat(terrifying moment). The ship hitting the iceberg and First Officer Murdoch (Richard Leech) desperately trying to change their course. The baker getting drunk to try and protect himself from the effects of the cold water. The passengers and crew at the stern praying and screaming. This is a film that gets under your skin and I find it very difficult to forget about this one once I’ve watched it.

The scale model of the ship and the sinking sequences are the highlight of the film for me. There is no CGI here, all the sinking scenes were done using practical effects and I think the scenes look all the better for that realism. The model and sinking sequences are extremely impressive when viewed today. I think that younger viewers who haven’t seen this film before would be very impressed with how these scenes look.

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The sinking ship. Awesome model work. Screenshot by me.

A real ship called R.M.S Asturias was also used for part of the filming. The ship was in the process of being scrapped at the time. Only one side of the ship remained intact, so MacQuitty got art students to paint that side just how the Titanic had been painted. Mirrors were then used to aid in the filming of scenes supposed to take place on the other side of the ship. Once filming was completed the Asturias was then scrapped. Scenes where lifeboats and people were supposed to be in the sea were shot on location in Ruislip Lido, London. 

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Survivors try to make their way to an overturned lifeboat. Screenshot by me.

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 goodbye letter from him for her to mail to his sister. Murdoch’s accusatory look at Ismay when Murdoch finds him sitting in a lifeboat being made ready to lower.

This is an excellent film filled with many powerful performances that have a real emotional impact. I also like how this film shows us the experiences of the engine and boiler room crew on the Titanic. Many of the men in those departments got trapped below deck and were killed as the sea swept through the lower decks. These crewmembers are shown as being among the first to realise the severity of the incident as it unfolds around them. The scenes showing these men trapped below deck are claustrophobic and scary.

I also like that the Californian and Carpathia and what their crews did are included in the film too. In other films and TV adaptations of this disaster these two ships are often not included at all or only feature very briefly. 

I also like how the film depicts the disbelief amongst most passengers and crew that they were in any real danger, even as a notable list starts to be noticed some don’t think anything of it. Slowly people start noticing liquid in glasses tilting to one side and realise that maybe they should heed the warnings to get to the boats. In reality many passengers were very slow to take the incident seriously and get quickly into the lifeboats.  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 it was Baker’s version which first got me interested in the real disaster itself and I think his version has a more realistic look to it. I highly recommend seeing both films though.

If you are interested in reading about the real disaster, then I would highly recommend Walter Lord’s book. I’d also recommend reading Titanic: An Illustrated History by Don Lynch.

What are your thoughts on this film?

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

  1. My old man is an advocate of this film. I watched it with him when I was a young boy- 8 or 9 years old – and I remember being utterly captivated. I’m so glad to hear it’s as good as my young impression would have it. I’m really eager for a re-watch now.

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  2. I find this version much more hypnotic and “real” than Cameron’s overblown take. And you’re so right about watching this one Blu-Ray. We have the Criterion version, and it’s so clean and crisp that it’s amazing…

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  3. Great review . Thanks. I’ve always been interested in the Titanic disaster and have visited the dry dock in Belfast where the ship was fitted out. It was eerie to stand there and think that this is where that great ship stood 100 years ago.
    One of the best books I have read about it is the official American Hearings, held very soon after the ship sank. It would make a great movie. The reasons why the ship sank on its maiden voyage with such great loss of life are varied and many. Was it going too fast, was it too far north in icier conditions, and why, oh why, werent there lifeboat places for the entire company .
    I agree this film version was by far the best.

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    1. Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it. I would love to read the book about the hearings, I agree that part of this story would make for a good film or TV series. I’d also like a film or series about Ismay and the way he was shunned after the tragedy.
      It must have been strange indeed to have visited the dry dock. I always feel sorry for the families and friends whose loved ones worked on the Titanic crew and never came home. Everyone left on that voyage so excited and full of hope, nobody ever saw this tragedy coming. I can only imagine how much disbelief must have been felt upon hearing the news of the sinking.

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  4. A Night to Remember is the consensus pick as the best Titanic film. I think there are some clear visual lifts from this in the Cameron film. There were also a couple of other notable Titanic films before this one, the fictionalised 1929 film Atlantic/Atlantik, and the 1943 Nazi propaganda flick Titanic. A Night to Remember apparently re-used a few sfx shots from the 1943 version. In a slightly horrible twist, the ship used in the Nazi film, the Cap Arcona, was itself sunk by Allied planes, killing several thousand people, many more than died on the Titanic.

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  5. Great review, Maddy. I just got back from my month in Colombia and saw this addition. I really like this movie, and also Camerons, plus I have a strong sentimental spot for the ’53 version with Stanwyck & Webb.

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  6. Great review Maddy and I also prefer this version as much as I like the 1953 version. It certainly has a greater emotional connection for me – especially in comparison to Cameron’s aberration. The conveying of tragedy on the character’s faces is far more effective and powerful than special effects and theatrics, because it captures the true sense of humanity.

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  7. Nice review. I love this film, it’s my favorite of all the Titanic movies, though I also think the 1953 version is quite good.
    I haven’t seen A Night to Remember in quite a while because it’s really is hard to watch. I will never be able again to listen to Nearer My God to Thee without bawling my eyes out. Frankly, I sit bawling through the entire movie.

    As opposed to you, Maddy, I truly hate Cameron’s film. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I despise it, so I won’t. 🙂 I couldn’t stop myself then.

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    1. Thanks. I agree this one makes for difficult viewing because it’s so real and upsetting. I’m not much of a fan of the 97 one, but I do think some of the film was good (the sinking and freezing in the sea sequences)but so much was bad. LOL don’t feel bad about disliking it.

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