In the early hours of April 15, the R.M.S. Titanic—the pride of Britain’s White Star Line—sank beneath the waves of the North Atlantic. The ship foundered just two hours and forty minutes after striking an iceberg and, despite sending desperate SOS message across the wireless, went down with over fifteen hundred passengers and crew still on board.
It’s been 108 years since the disaster and the tragic story has been told in every conceivable way. Books, films, mini-series, plays, even musicals. Some have done the Titanic justice, others less so. The most famous version by far is James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning epic. But is it the most faithful or even the best? It may claim to be “King of the world” but we’d wager that title belong’s to the 1958’s A Night to Remember. Read on to find out why…
Fact or Fiction
Based upon Walter Lord’s meticulously researched account of the event, the mid-century docu-drama pays considerable attention to detail. More so than you might expect for a film of that era. For a start, Titanic’s Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall and ex-Cunard Commodore Harry Grattidge worked as technical advisors on the film and producer William MacQuitty—a man who’d actually attended the ship’s launch in 1911—headed up the production team. His department dug through archival Titanic blueprints to design exceptionally authentic sets. Perhaps unsurprisingly, none of this specificity came cheaply. A Night to Remember had a final budget of £600,000, making it the most expensive British film up until that time. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about £12 million today.
James Cameron: “You think that’s expensive? Hold my beer.”
That doesn’t mean the film is issue free. One omission modern audiences might spot is the ship remaining in one piece as it sinks. It wasn’t until Robert Ballard’s discovery of the wreck in 1985 that scientists confirmed the ship actually broke in half as it went down, so we will forgive them that error. Then there’s the film’s opening, which depicts the ship’s christening. Strangely that particular maritime tradition was not a practice observed by the White Star Line, the Titanic’s parent company. A rare mistake in a film that strives for accuracy.
Despite those minor flubs, one more preventable than the other, A Night to Remember currently sits at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. The critically-lauded, bare bones re-enactment does an excellent job of bringing us the real life stories of passengers and crew with little to no exaggeration. It doesn’t rely on fictional characters, love stories, or cartoonish villains to amp up the emotional impact (all apologies to Kate and Leo). Where there are changes made, it seems to be for the sake of narrative simplicity: like the creation of composite characters out of a larger group of real-life individuals. Some historical figures were omitted or had their names changed to prevent potential legal action, something the 1997 version didn’t have to worry about. But don’t worry, the famous Strauss’s are there and so is Charles Joughin (aka the inebriated baker), so all is right with the world.
Adding to the social realism is the lack of familiar actors. It gives the film’s documentary style an additional, if unintentional, boost. There’s no Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, or Victor Newman—sorry, I mean Eric Braeden—here to distract viewers from the events as they unfold. The ostensible star of A Night to Remember, Kenneth More, was a charming, major British talent of his day. He acquits himself extremely well here as Second Officer Lightoller, but he’s far less recognizable to modern audiences.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any familiar faces. You’ll catch two future Bond players here, as both Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore) and Desmond Llewellyn (Q) appear in small roles. Jeremy Bulloch, known to Star Wars fans as Boba Fett, made his feature film debut as a young boy jumping into the frigid water. Eagle-eyed viewers may also spot a young David McCallum as Assistant Wireless Operator Harold Bride. This was long before his more well-known turns in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS.
Let’s Keep It Practical
Given the black and white film was released over 60 years ago, it’s somewhat surprising how well the special effects have held up but that may be because they were largely practical. Filming took place mostly at Pinewood Studios, where they built huge sections of the ship and filmed at night so their breath would show on camera.
Producers ran into a bit of an issue when they discovered there were no tanks big enough to handle the post-sinking survivor scenes. They turned to the open-air swimming bath at Ruislip Lido in London and filmed there in November. More recounted the bone-chilling cold in his 1978 autobiography, More or Less, letting on that very little acting was required:
Never have I experienced such cold in all my life. It was like jumping into a deep freeze. The shock forced the breath out of my body. My heart seemed to stop beating. I felt crushed, unable to think. I had rigor mortis, without the mortis. And then I surfaced, spat out the dirty water and, gasping for breath, found my voice.
“Stop!” I shouted. “Don’t listen to me! It’s bloody awful! Stay where you are!”
But it was too late. The rest were in, swimming around me, shouting and cursing with the agony of coldness. We struck out for the boats as though we really were shipwrecked, struggling and kicking anyone who got in our way. We weren’t acting. We were desperate to be rescued.
The vivid creaking noises heard during the sinking weren’t actually intended as effects at all. They were actually sounds picked up by mics as the set was winched up and down to create the tilting deck effect. Director Roy Ward Baker realized they sounded like the groaning noises a sinking ship might make, so he wisely decided to keep them in.
And the rest is silence…
One other intriguing aspect of A Night to Remember is the score. Or the lack of it. Apart from the opening title sequence and a scattering of other moments, the film relies on ambient music. Church bells, ship’s whistles, passenger sing-alongs, music from the ship’s orchestra. In an age of epic film music, it’s an interesting choice and a rarity that only heightens the feeling of being a silent witness to the disaster.
One stand-out piece of music in the film comes courtesy of the Titanic’s musicians. Many of those who survived the sinking recalled that they played right up until the end, though there is some disagreement over their final song. Most suggest it was the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”. A Night to Remember incorporates that famous detail into the above scene as well into composer William Alwyn’s score. James Cameron was such a fan of this that he’s admitted to stealing it completely and incorporating it into his version. It’s not the only word-for-word cut and paste from this film to its more famous cousin, but it’s one of the most noticeable.
The strategically placed bits of score, and the incorporation of that infamous hymn, add an incredible amount of tension without overwhelming the action. That’s not to knock James Horner’s Titanic score. But it’s not always a good thing when a score becomes more memorable than the majority of the film itself.
Where to Watch It
A Night to Remember was an early Criterion Collection release and is still available in both DVD and Blu-Ray formats, complete with an impressive list of extras. The movie is also available to rent or buy on Apple TV and on Amazon Prime (US). So next time you’re thinking of putting on Titanic, give this superior predecessor a try. With a running time of just over two hours, it’s got brevity on its side too. (Though there was joy in switching over to that second Titanic VHS tape, but that’s an article for another day.)