A Night to Remember (1958)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 8 August (12.30 pm)
Channel: London Live
IMDb Link

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: ****

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Reach for the Sky (1956)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 2 June (1.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

When it was released, Reach for the Sky became a colossal hit in UK cinemas, the top grossing film of the year and sealed Douglas Bader’s status as a bona fide English hero. Certainly the tale of a pilot who lost both his legs after a flying accident, and then returned to the skies through sheer force of will, becoming a central figure of the Battle of Britain in 1940, is a winning one, and it’s told winningly. It starred Kenneth More, one of the highest profile British actors of the 1950s and an entirely appropriate choice for the film’s story. More was entirely capable of depicting Bader’s sense of determination and his mounting popularity as a disabled man leading other fighter pilots into aerial combat. It’s a great portrayal and it fits the character the film is trying to create perfectly.

Unfortunately, whilst the story of Bader’s recovery after his crash is heartwarmingly true, Reach for the Sky goes for a picture book version of his life that omits or plays down certain details. Had the film been made twenty or more years later, it would almost certainly have taken a ‘warts and all’ approach, perhaps highlighting his neglected childhood, the lack of love from his parents that transformed him into a fierce and competitive spirit, his rudeness to others, a notable amount of bad language and his tendency to exaggerate his own flying prowess, wildly adding to the number of ‘kills’ he actually made on his exploits. What we get is Boys’ Own Bader, a bluff and larger than life yet definably heroic figure who inspired others through his example. There are elements of that in reality, true, yet during World War Two it seems clear that the media, ever eager to find great Britons in order to inspire an exhausted country, bought into his image, and it’s this ‘heightened’ Bader that More portrays.

By all accounts, Richard Burton was the first choice for the role before he declined and it was offered to More, and you can imagine a quite different Bader emerging in the former’s hands. And yet More’s the better fit for the resulting film, bringing a real indomitability to his part that Bader must have needed to possess in overcoming his disability. In his playing, there’s little of the tortured soul that might have been brought out as a consequence of his accident, more a stolid resoluteness to get back on his feet – and eventually into a cockpit – that must have been an easy sell into British hearts. It’s great stuff, More’s impressive jaw never more lantern-like as he takes lick after lick in his early, post-amputation scenes and comes back fighting. There’s a world of contrast between this and, say, the rather pathetic figure Tom Cruise turns into after he’s fatefully shot down in Vietnam during Born on the Fourth of July; a different figure for another age, telling quite distinct stories.

Here, Bader’s such a dominating figure that the rest of the cast barely get a look in. Lyndon Brook, as his friend and the film’s narrator, does little but provide the voiceover. Dorothy Allison’s Nurse Brace gives one impassioned speech to Bader about feeling less sorry for himself when so many people have prayed for him, and then vanishes once he’s left hospital. His wife, Themla, is played by Muriel Pavlow, and simply plays the supportive spouse, ever fretting about his survival and moving out of his way as he attempts another gold shot.

Reach for the Sky was directed by Lewis Gilbert, who would go on to work with More a year later in the fantastic The Admirable Crichton, before making a couple of very high profile Bond adventures. As those 007 entries would show, Gilbert had no problem directing action scenes, something revealed here in the great aerial combat sequences. Some of it is stock wartime footage, particularly those depicting the German pilots reacting to attacks from the British, but much of the film follows actual Spitfires and Hurricanes, along with antique flyers from the 1920s that remain in preservation today. The aerial photography makes for some fine bits of shooting, Gilbert getting across really well the tactics deployed by Bader and how effective they were, something quite difficult when many scenes of this kind appear to depict aircraft almost randomly soaring across the screen.

I’ve applauded British war films of this era on these pages a number of times for their honesty and attempts at realism. In that sense, Reach of the Sky is a bit disappointing, showing an idealised central character that focuses entirely on his positive achievements rather than the less wholesome aspects. But it is likeable, with almost the perfect 1950s British actor hired to command the film’s image of Bader, and that’s never really a bad thing.

Reach for the Sky: ***

The Admirable Crichton (1957)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 13 January (1.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

The study of class difference has always fascinated UK cinema, in particular looking back at a past in which the gulf between patrician and plebeian members was brought into sharper focus within single households. The success of TV shows like Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey prove that the interest has not waned, especially the status of the serving classes jarring with their wealthy employers. It’s little wonder that stately homes now open to the public attract millions of visitors. The glimpse into the kind of world that no longer exists, massive buildings housing single families and with labyrinthine quarters for the servants, is an almost surreal experience in the twenty-first century.

The Admirable Crichton was adapted from J M Barrie’s play, a comedy that was written and first performed in 1902 to enormous success. The first film version appeared in 1918, and since then it has been adapted for the radio and television, though this version from 1957 remains the best known. It was filmed in colour, with much of the action taking place on Bermuda to replicate the sun-kissed paradise in which our misfit heroes find themselves. Lewis Gilbert directed, and Director of Photography Wilkie Cooper’s eye for composition excelled in showing the attraction of the characters’ island home over its hardships. It really does look like a ravishing location on which to be stranded.

The eponymous Crichton (Kenneth More) is butler to Lord Loam (Cecil Parker), senior politician and owner of the vast Loam Hall. A practising Liberal, Lord Loam believes that his three daughters should acquaint themselves with a future in which all people are treated equally, and arranges gloriously awkward sessions in which the family and servants mix, to everyone’s bemusement. It’s the era of Suffragism, but Crichton cares little for the equalising of society, nor his master’s efforts to simulate this within the home. He’s the perfect butler, managing the staff with a firm but fair hand and believing strongly in the prolonging of tradition. One of the daughters is arrested for being involved in a heated Suffragette rally, and to avoid scandal Crichton suggests the family take a voyage to the South Seas. All goes wrong when the cruise runs into stormy waters, the boat sinks and the survivors find themselves on a beautiful but entirely uninhabited island. Along with Crichton and Lord Loam are the three daughters, two young male aristocrat friends, and Cockney girl Eliza (Diane Cilento), the maid known as ‘Tweeny’ because her serving role sees her move between roles.

Whilst the strandees aren’t in any real danger, it’s clear they have no idea how to cope with their new environment – Crichton asks the noblemen to tie their rowing boat to a rock, but they wrap the rope around a turtle instead, which duly ambles off into the sea and their vessel floats away. It turns out only Crichton has any practical knowledge and, after some initial tension, he emerges as the group’s leader. Two years pass. The roles reverse, Lord Loam serving Crichton in menial duties and being renamed ‘Daddy’, whilst the Butler now goes by ‘Guvnor’ and has used his skills to build houses, source food from the sea and create a reasonably comfortable life for them all. The men all love Tweeny, but she loves her Guvnor, a problem exacerbated as Crichton falls for Daddy’s eldest daughter, Mary (Sally Ann Howes). This culminates in a wedding ceremony between them, yet before the nuptials can be completed the spy a passing boat. Do they light the beacon and get rescued, returning to civilisation, or will they stay where they have found a semblance of happiness and equality?

Renamed Paradise Lagoon for the American market, the film was made as a vehicle for More, a genuine British box office draw in the 1950s and at his best in roles that emphasised his stolid masculinity. More was initially reticent about taking the part, but comes into his own when the action moves to the island and his practical skills and natural charisma come to the fore. He’s supported by a fine cast, veteran Parker nearly stealing the picture as the befuddled Lord who engages enthusiastically in becoming the servant once his circumstances change. Cilento has the film’s heart as the adorable Tweeny and, for this viewer, was a far better match for Crichton than Mary, a British alternative to Grace Kelly whose aloof persona never really cracked.

The Admirable Crichton is a perfectly enjoyable comedy-drama, strangely unthreatening to modern audiences who have the more visceral survival tale of something like Cast Away with which to compare it, yet entirely likeable. Furthermore, it’s a delight to me to come across a movie in which so much takes place and it’s all over in just over ninety minutes, points made succinctly, characters suitably developed; economic film making it its finest.

The Admirable Crichton: ***

North West Frontier (1959)

When it’s on: Sunday, 13 May (12.45 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

It’s easy to picture Michael Palin and Terry Jones, struggling for inspiration over a new comedy show, then stumbling across a screening of North West Frontier and suddenly realising the genius of writing a series of ripping yarns. That’s what this film is – a boy’s own tale, set in the days of the British empire and focusing on breathless adventure.

The plot is simplicity itself. It’s 1905. The northwest border of the British empire in India is a hotbed of tension between the Hindu maharajah and Muslim rebels. As the latter besiege a fort held by British forces protecting young Prince Kishan, a daring scheme is hatched to get the boy to the safety of Kalapur. Leading the party of escapees is Captain Scott (Kenneth More), who decides the best route to safety is boarding a knackered old shunting train, the Empress of India and breaking the blockade. The engine carries a ragtag complement of passengers, along with the prince’s governess, Mrs Wyatt (Lauren Bacall). The story concerns the various plights and pitfalls faced by the party as they make their way through hostile countryside, pursued by rebels, whilst doubts are raised over the loyalties of one of the passengers…

North West Frontier (which was released in America as Flame over India, presumably to avoid confusion with some Hitchcock film that has no doubt since lapsed into obscurity) is essentially Stagecoach in the hands of a British production team. No doubt this has something to do with the script, based on a screenplay by Frank S Nugent, who was a regular collaborator with John Ford. Just like Ford’s classic western, much is made of the fabulous setting, Geoffrey Unsworth taking on cinematography duties and photographing the Indian desert lovingly (it’s Spain really, but who’s counting?). J. Lee Thompson directs. He brings the same sensibility to North West Frontier as he displayed in his hit from the previous year, Ice Cold in Alex, at heart a road movie that elicits maximum tension from the situation rather than things happening.

The passengers encounter a raft of problems on their journey, mainly involving makeshift repairs to the rail track that has been sabotaged by the rebels. As they work, replacing the damaged track before them by lifting bits from behind the engine, there’s a sense that the enemy’s never far away and is closing in. Herbert Lom is on hand as a Dutch-Indian journalist, initially providing a cynical complement to More’s plucky officer but later emerging as a traitor. His efforts to do away with the prince are slowly exposed and Lom has a lot of fun in his role as an oily villain. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s ex-pat is the archetypal fish out of water, gurning and mugging in reaction to the plot’s twists and turns.

It’s a fine couple of hours’ entertainment, the only real sign of dating appearing in the shape of I S Lohar as the  comedy engine driver, Gupta. The film takes in an atrocity, probably its best moment as a trainload of passengers that has been waylaid by the rebels lies in the Empress’s path. When it left the fort, it was teeming with people, sat inside, on the roof and clinging to the sides, and now everyone’s dead, bodies strewn all over. It’s a scene designed to show the British sense of pall at such nastiness, and also to give Mrs Wyatt a moment of American independence as she ignores Captain Scott’s orders and goes on board the train of the dead to collect a living baby.

The tension between More and Bacall develops into romance, though theirs is a chaste courtship with little of the steam she delivered in her American films. All the same, the sight of go-to British character actor, More, and noir veteran Bacall getting it on has the feel of two worlds colliding.

North West Frontier: ***