Five years after the less than authentic but unarguably heartfelt Barbara Stanwyck/Clifton Webb Titanic film graced movie theater screens, the story of the doomed ocean liner returned to theaters in A Night to Remember -- a straightforward and relatively frank appraisal of the sinking, based on the non-fiction work of the same name by Walter Lord. Now it has been YEARS since I've seen this film, but as I mentioned earlier with the 100th anniversary of the sinking fast approaching I wanted to take the time to revisit some of cinema's classic portrayals of Titanic. I feel as though I was able to approach this film with relatively fresh eyes since it has been years since I've seen it, so the particulars of this film were rather hazy in my memory. But I couldn't have asked for better timing -- having just finished the Walter Lord book for the first time, to watch this film immediately following made for a powerful, immersive Titanic experience.
From the opening frames, the first thing that struck me about this film is its air of authenticity when compared to the 1953 Titanic. Unlike many (most?) films from this era, A Night to Remember has an almost documentary-style feel, with an astonishing attention to detail. This is a film that has stood the test of time and holds up brilliantly today, its understated grace lending it an unparalleled air of authenticity and realism. It is almost a beat-for-beat, word-for-word visual realization of the book. Of course it has the limitations of 1950s special effects at its disposal, but focusing on "just the facts" and foregoing the temptation to embellish the film with fictionalized characters/occurrences, A Night to Remember stands apart as an unmatched visual document of the sinking, an authority lended credence by the knowledge that the reminiscences of so many survivors were available, lending their invaluable perspective to Lord's book and the subsequent film.
A Night to Remember doesn't spend a lot of time establishing its core cast, instead briefly introducing major players such as Chairman of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton), builder Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), and Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith). While there is no "star" couple focus with which to romanticize the storyline and "hook" viewers, Second Officer Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) stands the closest to the role of a central star. Lightoller was the seniormost officer to survive the sinking, and his actions as documented in Lord's book and this film are nothing short of astounding, and More's performance a revelation. Lightoller's position in the ship is unique in that it is a window into both the crew and passengers' experiences, since as an officer Lightoller could walk in both worlds -- and he was a critical player in the dispatching of the lifeboats after the collision.
Anchored by More's performance as the workmanlike, competent Lightoller, the entire film does an excellent job resisting the temptation to succumb to melodrama. Performances are excellent across the board, extremely honest, never giving in to the temptation to idealize (or, conversely villainize) individuals. This is a film that showcases both the admirable, best and bravest tendencies in mankind as well as those painful moments of "mob mentality" or cowardice. My favorite scenes evoke the genuine pathos of the moment without resorting to hysterics -- the moment when a father sees his wife and children into a lifeboat, and he and his wife exchange a final look knowing this will be their last, but refusing to speak of it. The moment just before the sinking when an elderly steward attempts to comfort a lost child with promises to find his mother, knowing they are about to plunge into icy waters. The moment when the members of the band silently acknowledge the futility of attempting to escape the sinking ship, instead regrouping and playing "Nearer My God to Thee." Taken as a whole the unvarnished honesty of the performances is just one of the factors that make A Night to Remember an unforgettable, classic document of the disaster.
Before closing there are a handful cast appearances I must point out. Honor Blackman, better known today as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, turns in a stellar performance as the wife and mother of the aforementioned gentleman who bids his family a heart-rending farewell at the lifeboats. Kenneth Griffith as wireless operator Jack Phillips gives a moving performance when he allows you to see the slowly dawning, horrific realization that perhaps his frustration with relaying useless personal telegrams blocked or slowed knowledge of the dangerous ice facing the Titanic. He's supported by David McCallum in one of his earlier film appearances as assistant wireless operator Harold McBride (McCallum best known for his roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS).
In the last week I've delved rather heavily into Titanic-related material, and the thing that strikes me the most -- and that this film drives home really well -- is the sense of unreality about it all, the disconnect between the impact of the iceberg and the initial complacency of so many of the passengers. Even the (lack of a) response by the nearby Californian -- all underscore the fact that in 1912 a disaster of this magnitude, occurring with THIS ship, was absolutely unheard of, completely unfathomable. Taken together, both the book and film versions of A Night to Remember document not only the disaster of the sinking and the horrifying, needless loss of life, but the beginning of the end of an era, a devastating crack in mankind's general confidence in themselves and their accomplishments. May carefully crafted works like this serve to ever remind us of our past, remind us of the best mankind is capable of when the unthinkable strikes, but perhaps most of all remind us in this very uncertain world remind us where true security lies -- the truth of the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee," may it be ever so.