Blogathons, Classic Film Discoveries, Period Dramas, Uncategorized

Tragedy for the masses: A Night to Remember (1958)

Whilst most people think of James Cameron’s blockbuster when anyone brings up the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the Roy Ward Baker, Rank distributed film, A Night To Remember, put in place many of the things that would later make Cameron’s film what it was.

Cameron was influenced in his crafting of the film by the 1958 British production A Night to Remember, which he had seen as a youth. He liberally copied some dialogue and scenes from that film, including the lively party of the passengers in steerage,and the musicians playing on the deck during the sinking of the ship.

Wikipedia

The film is based on the 1955 non fiction book of the same name by Walter Lord. It is still considered one of the definitive books on the subject, as Ward interviewed over sixty survivors of the tragedy. The book has never been out of print, and was lauded by critics.

Produced by the Rank organisation, A Night to Remember was produced for a whopping £600 000 (roughly £13 million pounds in 2019). The special effects were created with the technical advisement of Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall and ex-Cunard Commander, Harry Grattidge. William MacQuitty, who saw the launching of the original ship, used blueprints of the Titanic in addition to Boxhall and Grattidge’s technical assistance.

This is very much evident in how painstakingly detailed the sets are, from the lavish dining room of first class, the small, overcrowded quarters of steerage and the large bowels of the ship’s engine, which flood with ominous urgency as the stokers drown. The loading of the lifeboats is brilliantly illustrated, with passengers clambering to board as the ship begins to sink even faster. The exterior shots of the ship, against the inky blackness of the arctic night, lights shimmering on the seemingly depthless, icy water; are stunning in every way. As is the sequence when the ship makes it fatal collision with the iceberg, creating a three hundred foot gauge in her side that rapidly floods her bowels.

Construction of the painstakingly constructed miniatures and sets used in the film

The ridiculous attitudes of the first class passengers and their spoilt hubris is portrayed brilliantly during these scenes, too. One woman snootily proclaims that she will not get in the lifeboat and “catch her death of cold”. Another demands her jewels from the safe, as if those are more important than evacuating the boat. Another man is hoisted out of a lifeboat, and a woman declares she needs her “lucky pig”. Men play cards whilst musicians play on deck, the ridiculous rigidity and class divide of the Edwardian era laid bare and broken to pieces as the danger grows.

The desperate plight of the steerage passengers who are barred from immediate evacuation by the gates that “stopped the spread of disease”, is conveyed by a young group of passengers who defy regulations and find another way up. They gaze upon the beauty of the first class dining room, the only time in their lives that they are likely to see such luxury. Down below the rest of the steerage passengers push as they feverishly attempt to get past the barrier of the ship’s crew.

The foreshadowing of the sinking is masterfully conveyed, too. With the telegraph lines jammed with the trivial messages of first class passengers. The communications officer writes down a warning from SS California of ice in the field, but places other unimportant messages on top of it. Characters keep discussing the boat being unsinkable, and the ridiculousness of this statement is hinted at in the beginning of the film when Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), discusses an advert for luxurious toilet soap with his wife. Other train passengers sniff at his “disrespect” of the boat, and the importance of national pride. Pride being the operative word.

The warning of field ice came secondary to messages conveyed for passages by the wireless operators.

The film is driven by characters who feel incredibly real. Whilst the film is clearly a star vehicle for Kenneth More, all the speaking parts are imbued with authenticity. I think the most heartbreaking is the young couple who are on their honeymoon, their life together has barely begun. The incredible cowardice of Bruce Ismay is portrayed quietly and gut wrenchingly by Frank Lawton. Honor Blackman has a small role as a woman who realises too late that her husband loves her, and David McCallum plays a young wireless officer. Laurence Naismith and Michael Goodliffe are both excellent as Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews respectively.

Bruce Ismay weeps as the ship sinks. His representation in popular culture is still interrogated.

Other touches give the film a brilliant sense of mood. The slow lapping of the water in a corridor as the ship steadily sinks, a wayward dinner cart careering around an abandoned dining room and colliding into the sideboard, and the gushing of water through the wooden panelled luxury rooms of first class. These are the things that haunt you as they are interspersed with the desperate scrambling of frenzied passengers, faced with death at the hands of the endless sea.

Critics at the time were rightfully very praiseworthy of the film, with the notoriously scathing Bosley Crowther saying:

this remarkable picture is a brilliant and moving account of the behavior of the people on the Titanic on that night that should never be forgotten. It is an account of the casualness and flippancy of most of the people right after the great ship has struck (even though an ominous cascade of water is pouring into her bowels); of the slow accumulation of panic that finally mounts to a human holocaust, of shockingly ugly bits of baseness and of wonderfully brave and noble deeds.

Wikipedia

There are so many moving parts in this film, but the ones that touched me the most, and made me really understand the absolute epic tragedy of the event, were Captain Smith retiring to the bridge to go down with what was supposed to be his crowning glory. The musicians play ceaselessly as people jump into the water to their icy deaths, a little lost boy cries for his mother and is comforted by an old steward, and Andrews’ acceptance of his death as the ship careens forward and the furniture slides with it. The lights on the ship flicker and die away, the ship slides into the dark depths of the water, and people pray for deliverance and forgiveness.

At the time it was not known that the ship broke in half whilst sinking.

I think most poignant of all when is Kenneth More speaks about how there are still so many what-ifs in regards to the sinking of the ship. How things could have gone so differently, and how the disaster could have been avoided.

No—Because we were so sure! Because even though it’s happened, it’s still unbelieveable! I don’t think I’ll ever feel sure again, about anything!

IMDB

It has been one hundred and ten years since the sinking of the Titanic. And yet it lives in our collective memory to this day. A Night To Remember reminds us in vivid detail exactly why that is so.

This is my second and final contribution to my and Dubsism’s The Second Disaster Blogathon.

18 thoughts on “Tragedy for the masses: A Night to Remember (1958)”

  1. I love this movie so much. I saw it so many times before Cameron’s version came out that I was then annoyed by his rather stern, detached, incompetent portrayal of Lightoller!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve been fascinated by the Titanic since I was a kid, thanks to a National Geographic we had that was all about Robert Ballard finding it. I read Walter Lord’s book while writing a research paper about the sinking in middle school, and my parents got this movie for me via interlibrary loan, which was the first time I ever heard of getting library things from other libraries! Hee.

    Anyway, it’s such a heartbreaking tragedy because it really was avoidable. Sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I greatly enjoyed your first-rate write-up. I’ve always been fascinated by the Titanic, and have seen all of the films. A Night to Remember is certainly an excellent and memorable representation of this tragedy.

    Liked by 1 person

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