|Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Walter Lord, was not the first cinematic depiction of the sinking of the Titanic, although for many it remains the best. The fateful tragedy of the jewel of the White Star Line—at the time, the largest ship ever built—was first reenacted only a month after its sinking in Saved From the Titanic (1912), an opportunistic short film that featured Dorothy Gibson, a real-life Titanic survivor, playing a fictional survivor reenacting her experience for her fiancée. The silent era featured several films that were inspired by the Titanic disaster, including Atlantis (1913), an early feature-length international smash that climaxed with the sinking of an actual ship. The Titanic itself was first given feature-length treatment in, of all things, a German-produced propaganda film called Titanic (1943) that was intended to draw attention to British hubris. Hollywood jumped into the game 10 years later with Titanic (1953), a sprawling soap opera starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.|
Despite their differences, what all of those previous films had in common was a distinct lack of historical accuracy. Their goal was alwas something other than the detailed reality of what actually happened on the night of April 15, 1912, whether it be melodrama or anti-British propaganda. Thus, when producer William MacQuitty, who had watched the Titanic sail out of its slip in 1911, purchased the right to Lord’s 1955 book, his goal was to make a film that finally got it right by making the ship itself the star and creating drama and suspense not out of fictional characters (although a number of characters in the film are composites), but out of the documented actions of the real-life men and women who faced the unthinkable reality that their supposedly “unsinkable” ocean liner was fated to rest at the bottom of the ocean.
Eric Ambler’s screenplay uses Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior officer to survive the sinking, as the film’s human center-point. As played by British star Kenneth More, Lightoller is presented as a fundamentally decent, level-headed man who represented in various ways the best of humanity during the tragedy. This tempts the filmmakers to overplay him a bit, particularly at the end when he delivers the film’s summative speech about never being sure of anything again; the point is well taken and is thematically crucial, but its delivery smacks of the need to drive home a message, rather than something the character would actually say in that moment. It’s one of the film’s rare missteps.
Lightoller is surrounded by other characters—both historical figures and convenient composites representing particular types—who act with both bravery and cowardice, and part of the film’s power is the way in which is paints a broad spectrum of human behavior, from the heights of selfless sacrifice to the depths of abject desperation and fear. One of the film’s most moving sequences involves the wealthy Sir Richard (Patrick Waddington) confronting Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), the ship’s designer, about its fate and, once told of its imminent demise, calmly insisting that his wife and three children get into the lifeboats without ever once revealing his knowledge of his own doom. That scene contrasts starkly with both J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton), the president of the White Star Line, cowardly sneaking into a lifeboat (an action that clearly haunts him as the ship disappears into the water behind him), and a later scene in which numerous men, having staked a claim to a place on an upside-down lifeboat, frantically push others away from the boat to keep them from capsizing it. Our immediate inclination is to celebrate the heroism of those who sacrifice themselves for others and chafe at the egotism of those who wantonly save themselves at others’ expense, but the film presses us to think hard about what we would do in such a situation. It’s never so easy.
What is not in question is the film’s harsh portrayal of the resilient class divisions that defined social life aboard the ship and then, more tragically, ensured that the majority of the 1,500 who perished that night were from steerage, rather than first and second class. Seeing men, women, and children being barricaded in the flooding lower levels of the ship while first-class “ladies” bemoan the inconvenience of having to get into a lifeboat in the freezing dead of night is enough to exasperate anyone who recognizes that wealth does not inherently make one a superior human being. Yet, A Night to Remember is not a call to class warfare, as it depicts numerous members of first class acting with great dignity and nobility, thus countering any tendency to boo the rich and celebrate the poor (the latter of whom are just as willing to sacrifice others in their desperation to survive). The film also draws a great deal of attention to the Californian, a ship that was so close to the Titanic that they could see each other with the naked eye, yet through a combination of both laziness and misunderstanding never came to the sinking ship’s aid. The reluctance of Stanley Lord (Russell Napier), the captain of the Californian, to investigate why the Titanic was firing distress rockets is contrasted with the immediate action of Arthur Rostron (Anthony Bushell), captain of the Carpathia, the ship that eventually rescued Titanic’s survivors.
Although A Night to Remember was one of the most expensive British productions of the 1950s, the filmmakers did not have the immense levels of technology and special effects that James Cameron would use to such great effect several decades later in his worldwide smash Titanic (1997), which features numerous scenes that pay homage to Baker’s film. Baker, who gravitated toward thrillers and horror films (including many for Hammer) and later worked primarily in television, makes the most of small details; one of his most effective devices is the use of recurring shots of a cart in the dining room whose almost imperceptible movement is the first sign of the ship’s descent into the icy waters. The depiction of the Titanic itself is assembled from a clever mix of miniatures, stock footage of other, similar-looking ships (including the Queen Elizabeth, whose 1938 launch stands in for the launch of the Titanic at the beginning of the film), and an aging ship that was repurposed to look like the Titanic even as it was being disassembled from the other side. The interiors of the ship were studiously recreated from historical documents and survivor testimonies, while the bowels of the ship were shot inside a factory, thus lending the film an overall sense of realism that belies some of its more dated visual techniques. The result is a film that broke new ground in depicting one of history’s worst maritime disasters, interweaving historical reality with a dexterous sense of storytelling that keeps the film fresh and engaging so many decades later.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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