Titanic Month: A Night To Remember

A Night to Remember (1958)

A Night to Remember is based on the book of the same name by Walter Lord, which gives a detailed account of the night the Titanic sank. Unlike the 1953 film, in this one, the focus is on the historical event itself – it’s saying to its audience, ‘This is what happened, and why.’

Funnily enough, considering how historically accurate the film is in general, it opens with an error in the name of artistic licence, depicting the Titanic’s launch (actually stock footage of the Queen Elizabeth) with the ship being christened with a bottle of champagne. In fact, the White Star Line didn’t christen their ships – one worker at the shipyard allegedly said, ‘They just builds ‘er and shoves ‘er in.’ Aside from that, the film follows the details given in the book very faithfully, without feeling like it’s forcing any exposition in – for example, when Captain Smith realises that there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone onboard, he comments, ‘I don’t think the Board of Trade regulations visualised this situation.’ Sometimes it puts details in the background without highlighting or full explaining them, for example, a bearded man reading silently in the smoking room, presumably William Thomas Stead. We don’t see the Titanic splitting in two as she goes down, but that’s only because this wasn’t confirmed until the wreck was discovered in 1985, despite being reported by multiple survivors.

After setting the scene for the Titanic’s maiden voyage, A Night to Remember moves relatively quickly to the night of 14th April; it gives the audience a picture of normal life onboard – including the contrast between first class and steerage – before the ship hits the iceberg just over half an hour in. This means that the majority of the film’s two-hour length is dedicated to the sinking, and it makes good use of the time available. There’s plenty of room to show the gradual escalation of the situation, with exterior shots showing the Titanic’s bow sinking further and further, and the passengers’ attitudes shifting from casual or bewildered to increasingly frightened.

With the film trying to show the big picture, the focus on particular characters is limited. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, played by Kenneth More, is the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, coming across as good-humoured, honourable and professional. We also see a lot of historical key players like Captain Smith, Bruce Ismay and chief designer Thomas Andrews – but as for other passengers, the film goes back and forth between a large number of people, wanting to give different historical examples rather than develop characters. Some people might not like this approach, but I didn’t have a problem with it in the context of the film; we see enough of some of these passengers to recognise and still care about them, and what we see of the historical characters feels genuine. When discussing the fate of the ship after the collision, Smith and Andrews maintain a quiet and professional air, but you can see how they’re really feeling in their eyes.

The sets and visual effects are very good, particularly the final plunge, which looks dramatic and convincing. The shots of the interiors flooding and falling apart, with accompanying sound effects, work just as well as in the climax of James Cameron’s film, especially considering that this is nearly forty years earlier. The film also does a great job of creating atmosphere, such as when everything goes quiet just before the collision. Much later, the band playing Nearer My God To Thee makes things go quiet and sombre before the terror of the final moments. Most of the time, there isn’t any background music (aside from the band); it only returns in dramatic force when the passengers really start getting hysterical.

A Night to Remember is also clear about its overall themes – the Titanic disaster being a product of overconfidence and complacency – without going too far and shoving them in the audience’s face. When Smith and Ismay receive ice reports, for example, Smith says casually, ‘Oh, we shall keep a sharp lookout’ – the danger is not totally dismissed, but nobody can seriously perceive anything bad happening. At the end, waiting to be picked up by the Carpathia, Lightoller reflects on how this disaster was different from previous shipwrecks ‘because we were so sure…because even though it’s happened, it’s still unbelievable.’ The film ends with scrolling text giving a hopeful message, as it explains the changes that took place to improve safety as a result of the tragedy.

A Night to Remember gets practically everything right when it comes to making a film about the Titanic disaster, and if you’re interested in the subject, it’s a must-watch. I’m less sure whether it would appeal to more general audiences, but the fact that it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest yes.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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