When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 August (12.30 pm)
Channel: London Live
You’ve probably heard of James Cameron’s 1997 film, Titanic. All those Academy Awards aside, there were the endless queues of people going to see it – I caught it twice, hopelessly swept up in its sheer spectacle and seduced by the breathless action movie it became after the ship had its fateful meeting with an innocent iceberg. There’s a sense of the film’s second half being told almost in real time, and I defy any viewer not to have their own doubts about the Titanic being sinkable, as for a seductively long time it remains afloat even as the crew are rushing people to the lifeboats and, way beneath the first class opulence, water relentlessly fills the decks.
Possible it is to think of Cameron’s sledgehammer of a movie as definitive. At the time it was by some distance the most expensive ever made and had taken a long time to put together. It took advantage of research undertaken at the actual wreck, underwater exploration – including expeditions taken by Cameron himself – that confirmed the contemporary eyewitness accounts claiming the ship had broken in half moments before it sank completely. The film did all it could to recreate the actual vessel, and while some of the computer generated effects have aged considerably over the two decades since its release there’s an attention to detail that is difficult to argue with. True, the main romantic plot that mops up all the class differences experienced by the passengers feels contrived and heavy handed, but all told it’s a likable piece of populist work that ticks most of the boxes, even if Cameron mashes his points about the social orders home with all the subtlety of a house brick.
And yet it was by no means the first time cinema attempted to recreate the events of 1912 that depicted the Titanic tragedy as a last word in human hubris and folly. A Nazi propaganda film was released in 1943; ten years later Clifton Webb and the unsinkable Barbara Stanwyck starred in a melodrama that used the fateful voyage as the backdrop to their failing marriage. Then there’s A Night to Remember, the 1958 entry that is quite possibly the most accurate version. The title comes from the book from which it was adapted, Walter Lord’s riveting minute by minute account of the sinking that drew on the accounts by survivors he’d spoken to extensively. It was a bestseller and made the film an easy inevitability. Despite the obvious technical difficulties faced by a modestly budgeted British effort and its far from blockbuster returns at the box office, A Night to Remember was universally praised by critics and for viewers it remains a straight choice between this and Cameron’s epic. The fact it can rub shoulders with the second highest grossing movie of all time is testament to its enduring appeal.
Unlike Titanic, it makes a rigid attempt to stick to the facts and tell a straight story, achieving an almost documentary drama atmosphere as the camera moves from person to person, picking out individual tales and predicaments. A Night to Remember features more than 200 speaking roles, or around a tenth of the actual ship’s complement, which is no mean feat. The star is Kenneth More’s Lightoller, Titanic’s Second Officer whose personal drama is told from before he steps foot on the ship to his efforts to shepherd passengers onto the lifeboats in an orderly and typically British ‘women and children first’ manner. But it makes clear Lightoller’s is only one voice among hundreds. There’s Michael Goodliffe as Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s builder and the first to realise the seriousness of their predicament. Laurence Naismith plays the stolid ship’s captain. Honor Blackman and John Cairney take the roles of passengers from first class and steerage respectively, showing how different their experiences of being on Titanic are both normally and when faced with a crisis. The wireless operators are Kenneth Griffiths and a very young David McCallum. Their roles in the unfolding story are crucial but until the collision they’re an afterthought, holed up in their cabin and conveying messages from the passengers that stops them from relaying all the warnings they receive from other ships about ice… In a small and rather comedic role, George Rose plays the ship’s baker, who reacts to the mounting chaos by getting blind drunk. After leaving the ship and treading water in the sea for a time he’s picked up by a lifeboat, the liquor in his bloodstream remarkably keeping him warm and ensuring he feels no ill effects from the freezing temperatures of the water. The crews of other ships near to Titanic are also shown. The RMS Carpathia steams towards it once it becomes clear that it’s floundering, but the SS Californian, only ten miles distant, its lights visible from Titanic, doesn’t respond because its radio operator (Geoffrey Bayldon) has turned in for the night.
The film’s tension is achieved from the sureness of what is about to happen, viewers waiting for the collision and what happens next as Andrews explains Titanic has two hours of life remaining. The unfortunate kiss from the iceberg takes place early, meaning the main running time is taken up with the crew fighting a battle to save as many lives as possible, at first struggling to persuade bewildered people that the ship will sink and they really need to leave, and later making efforts to stop the evacuation from turning into outright panic. It’s impressively told, the sheer number of cast members and the suspense faced by everyone up against the clock ensuring it never loses pace. The film’s director was Roy Ward Baker, later to establish himself on television and as a regular for Hammer studios, and here making full use of his powers to produce brisk and economical storytelling, capable of not short changing his characters while never over-egging their accounts. Of course, this is 1950s British cinema and so the use of models occasionally becomes obvious, but it was a necessary evil and the crew did the best they could with the finite resources available.
It remains to provide a verdict on which is the best Titanic film. The 1997 take is visually stunning and mounted on the grandest scale possible, yet it suffers from some bloat and clearly strip-mined A Night to Remember for numerous images and set pieces. The similarities of the stories being weaved no doubt made this an inevitability, but personally I could do without Billy Zane’s by-the-numbers villain and some unnecessary padding that relates to a mythical lost necklace (a purely fictional device). And that means I prefer the 1958 account, a muscular version that loses absolutely nothing in the way its told, features excellent production values and maximises its massive cast. It’s a watery delight.
A Night to Remember: ****