Unlike James Cameron’s blockbuster epic Titanic, which focused on a love story while the famous ship’s sinking was used as a backdrop to their passion, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember is more of a docudrama as it was based on the non-fiction book by Walter Lord, and after all these years this movie still remains one of the best depictions of that fateful night.
Unlike the 1953 Titanic from 20th Century Fox, which starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as two fictional passengers aboard the doomed ship, A Night to Remember doesn’t have real stars or even a lead character – the closest we get to this is Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) – and while he is the first named character we meet he is far from a dominant screen persona. This lack of a central character is due to the fact that this film was based on a nonfictional account of the tragedy, so neither the studio nor director Roy Ward Baker felt the need to create fictional drama aboard one of the most dramatic moments in world history. For those who have been living under a rock, this movie tells the story of RMS Titanic, the largest and most luxurious vessel afloat, which was widely believed to be unsinkable until the unthinkable happened, sending the ship to the bottom of the ocean on its maiden voyage.
Note: A supposedly unsinkable ship sinking on its maiden voyage seems like an “on-the-nose” premise for a disaster movie, and that this was actually the case makes this story even more incredible.
One of the best elements of this entry is the way in which the filmmakers brilliantly blended the ship’s real-life passengers and crew with that of a group of composite historical characters who perfectly capture the terrifying events that unfold. We have Aristocrats sailing on their entitlements, young lovers on a doomed honeymoon and immigrants dreaming of a new world that they will never reach, all ingredients that Eric Ambler’s screenplay wonderfully brought to life. A Night to Remember doesn’t focus on any particular group or person – as mentioned, Lightoller is given a larger part than most – so we get a very well-balanced depiction of the events and the actions of the crew and passengers. There is Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith), wireless operators Jack Philips (Kenneth Griffith) and Harold Bride (David McCallum), shipbuilder Thomas Andrew (Michael Goodliffe), Margaret “Molly” Brown (Tucker MacGuire) and the managing director of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton), who has been unfairly depicted as a coward in most depictions of the Titanic sinking.
Note: By all accounts, Bruce Ismay was a sweet and charming man who had no influence whatsoever over the running of the ship, he was simply a passenger and he certainly never goaded the Captain into ignoring ice warnings. Also, he only got onboard a lifeboat because the one being lowered was more than half empty.
• This was far from the first movie based on the sinking of the Titanic and it even includes footage “borrowed” from the Nazi propaganda film Titanic (1943).
• As accurate as this film is when it comes to depicting this tragic tale it does start with a rather weird inaccuracy by showing a big launching ceremony for the Titanic, which was something the White Star Line didn’t do for their ships.
• This movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the meat and potatoes of the disaster, the Titanic hits the iceberg at the 34-minute mark while it took James Cameron’s version 100 minutes before it got to the collision.
• Actors Laurence Naismith, John Cairney and Honor Blackman would later venture aboard Ray Harryhausen’s fantasy epic Jason and the Argonauts (1963).
The one element of this film that does stick in my craw, something that appears in many other films portraying this event, is the depiction of Second Officer Lightoller as this noble hero who worked valiantly to the very end, and while some of that is true his taking the order of “Women and children first” as “Women and children only” may have resulted in the deaths of up to 200 people on the RMS Titanic as this led to him launching lifeboats that were half-filled. To be fair, he later saved many people from the frigid waters when he organized one of the overturned collapsible boats, and I’m sure he thought what he was doing was best, but whether due to misinformation on what the lifeboats could handle or not I still find it hard to cheer for him. It should be noted that as accurate as the filmmakers tried to be with the events of that fateful night they were still dealing with what was believed to be the case at the time, such as the ship going down in one piece, while later, when the wreck was found by Doctor Robert Ballard, it would be proven to have actually broken in half.
Note: At the hearings, witnesses who claimed to have seen the ship breaking in half were ignored in favour of Lightoller’s statement that it went down in one piece, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the people over at White Star Line were pushing this narrative as their ship “breaking in half” would be another nail in their already terrible public relations nightmare.
Whatever failing this film has in the area of historical accuracy is minor when compared to how marvellous and moving an account of the behaviour of the people on the Titanic was depicted in this movie, from the casual denial of the dangers “Don’t be ridiculous, this ship can’t sink” to the eventual panic following Captain Smith’s declaration of “Every man for himself,” everything on screen is handled with near perfection. The cast is impeccable and the sets are “picture-perfect” reproductions of the rooms aboard the Titanic. Not only was this an amazing portrayal of this horrific event it also helped spark the wave of disaster films that would include such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
Overall, A Night to Remember is a film not to be forgotten, and to me, it remains the definitive Titanic movie, a truly powerful film that illustrates humanity in a very honest light and is told through a very straightforward lens.
A Night to Remember (1958)
Movie Rank - 8/10
James Cameron’s Titanic may have won eleven Academy Awards but Roy Ward Baker’s docudrama adaptation of Walter Lord’s “A Night to Remember” holds up incredibly well when compared to that multi-million-dollar blockbuster – it actually inspired Cameron to make his film – and anyone who is interested in the story of the Titanic should make an effort to see this version at is well-crafted and packs an emotional punch.