SOS Titanic (1979)
SOS Titanic was originally broadcast on television in two parts, with a total length of 2.5 hours. Apparently this version is not commercially available, so the one I watched was the DVD version which is only 98 minutes long. The production boasts a distinguished cast, including Ian Holm, Helen Mirren, Cloris Leachman, and David Warner, making his first of two outings aboard the Titanic: here playing second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley, he would later appear as the fictional Lovejoy in James Cameron’s film.
One thing I definitely like about this one is that it gives a proper impression of everyday life for the people onboard, from playing games on deck to having a session in the electric bath. Little details, like the Irish third-class passengers being impressed that tea is called dinner on the ship, and two men electing to join a priest in prayer during the sinking despite not being Catholic, give the characters extra dimension.
There is also focus on passengers that don’t get much attention in other productions, like the Harrises and the Marvins. John Jacob Astor and his young wife Madeleine are among the central figures, with some exploration of the difficulties and doubt they are facing in the wake of their scandalous marriage. Margaret “Molly” Brown also gets more attention than in the older films, mostly serving as comic relief with her crude and forward attitude. And while most Titanic films highlight the contrast between first and third class, this is one of the few that takes a look at some second-class passengers, or the ‘middle people’ as they are referred to at one point.
The RMS Queen Mary – which had been retired and moored in Long Beach, California in 1967, where you can still visit it today (the picture above is mine, from 2012) – was used as a Titanic substitute in many scenes, such as those on the deck, and when the Irish passengers approach the ship on their tender. The problem with that is, the Queen Mary’s structure and orange-red funnels don’t greatly resemble the Titanic. This becomes more problematic in the later stages when we get exterior (and clearly superimposed) shots of a Titanic more true to real life – and rather different from the one we’ve been seeing.
Indeed, the visuals and effects in this production aren’t great in general. The iceberg that sinks the ship changes size and shape between shots. Throughout the sinking sequence, just how low the ship has sunk at a given time also changes back and forth; much of what we see here appears to have been recycled from A Night to Remember and colourised. And as the sea reaches the boat deck, people and collapsible boats get thrown about by intense jets of water, which appear to spurt randomly from who knows where. There are a few good visual choices, however, such as showing water seeping in gradually after the collision – creating an ominous feeling – and the distressing sight of an abandoned baby sitting in a flooded corridor.
I wasn’t a fan of the confusing relationship between Lawrence Beesley and fictional passenger Leigh Goodwin, where Beesley seems unsure whether he’s in love with Leigh or not; not to mention, it feels rather off given that he’s a historical character. Another little romance, between two third-class passengers, suffers from the fact that the girl involved literally never says a word in the whole thing. She doesn’t even have a name, credited only as ‘Irish Beauty’.
SOS Titanic is a mixed bag, overall: it takes both good and not so good approaches with its characters, but despite some philosophical musings by Beesley and Goodwin, it doesn’t seem as sure of what it’s trying to give the audience as other productions. Still, it’s worth a look if you have an interest.