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: ****

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 March (5.40 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

When I was a kid, any film featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen was a typically Bank Holiday treat. It didn’t matter that the stop motion animation he perfected to painstaking effect always looked artificial – that was just part of the fun, and besides the creatures he brought to life on the screen were often fantastical to the extent that I, like many others I’m sure, just loved the outburst of imagination they represented. If I have an ultimate favourite among his creations, it’s almost certainly Talos, the giant statue from Jason and the Argonauts that comes to terrifying life, moves with the yell of rusty joints that haven’t needed to be used in untold aeons and threatens the entire ship of heroes. But I was fortunate enough to see the final feature with which he was involved, Clash of the Titans, as it was intended on the big screen, and despite advances in special effects there was nothing more frightening than Perseus trapped in the lair of Medusa, a last hurrah for the brilliance of the man’s art as the breathlessly sublime combination of lighting, sound and animation brought the monster to hideous reality.

Harryhausen was a big fan of dinosaurs, using his technique to put them onto the screen in various movies. Whilst the likes of Jurassic Park pretty much consigned his work into the annals, there’s something undeniably fantastic about his effort to revive these long extinct animals, and besides whilst CGI can serve up photo realistic dinosaurs well enough, it’s a rare film indeed that can inject its monsters with the sense of personality Harryhausen gave to his creations. Compare The Valley of Gwangi with something like the Tyrannosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In the latter, there’s a point to which those dinosaurs are there simply because they can be, present for no other reason than to provide a threat to Kong and Naomi Watts. Gwangi, the perpetually irritated lizard that’s forced into the civilised world, with obvious consequences, always has motivation, a reason for being and doing the things it does. No amount of new technology can make that happen; it takes heart.

Released in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi was a flop at a time when Warners felt audiences cared little for this sort of thing and consequently barely promoted it. Taken as a whole, it’s far from the best action-fantasy caper, with its slight plot that is little more than window dressing for the opportunity to bring Westerns and dinosaur flicks on a collision course, the sort of cross-genre nonsense that I can’t imagine fans of either clamouring for. It takes a while for the creatures to appear, but when they do the film suddenly becomes a real thrill ride. The effect of cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi (for the record, it’s sort of a cross between a Jurassic Allosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the later Cretaceous period, and I for one love that Harryhausen grab-bagged from both to create Gwangi because, you know what, it’s just fantasy!) looks amazing, human actors and stop motion creature interacting seamlessly, though of course it was a scene that took months to perfect. The actors had to throw their ropes around a pole erected on a jeep, and then Harryhausen overlaid the film with his creature, ensuring the strings around its neck were synchronised with the men’s actions so that the illusion wouldn’t be shattered. Genuinely astonishing work.

Gwangi and his stop motion mates are undoubtedly the stars of the show, which basically means it’s Harryhausen’s film. The director and cast are subservient, and only Jerome Moross’s rabble rousing score, like a rehashing of the brilliant music he produced for The Big Country, really stands out.

Our hero is Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), a cowboy working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. I remember Franciscus best from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where his role was basically to reprise Charlton Heston from the first film, which he did to largely anonymous effect. Here, he has more upon which to chew; his character, Tuck (named after the friar?), is essentially on the make. Despite breaking the heart of T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) previously, he wants to buy out her struggling show, shrugging off her reticence, not to mention her rather obvious personal dislike. T.J. thinks she’s found the answer to all her problems, a miniature horse that appears to be a throwback to the prehistoric Eohippus, an ancestor of the modern horse when they were the size of small dogs. Its origins are identified by Sir Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), a paleontologist who’s digging away in the nearby desert. A group of gypsies, led by the reliably demented Freda Jackson, kidnap the Eohippus and try to return it from whence it came, via a tiny crack in the side of a mountain. But Tuck and crew discover the crack, realising it leads somehow into a hidden place, the Forbidden Valley, and break through into a land where prehistoric animals still roam.

Naturally, as soon as he comes across Gwangi, the opportunistic Kirby sees money, the prospect of exhibiting a dinosaur as part of his show and rake in the millions. So far, so King Kong, which is what The Valley of Gwangi becomes. Unsurprisingly, the film started life as a project by Willis O’Brien, the predecessor in many ways to Harryhausen, who worked on the stop motion effects for the original King Kong and the 1925 version of The Lost World, and saw Gwangi as an amalgamation of both. For Warner’s, it must have felt like a no-brainer to put the money into production, but Harryhausen’s work took a long time to reach fruition, two years in fact, during which time audience tastes had moved on and a lightweight matinee flick, which this is, held dwindling appeal. It doesn’t help that the hero isn’t especially likeable, just coming across as greedy without appearing to gain much in terms of a conscience as his plans for Gwangi naturally turn to disaster. That said, it’s a film that never outstays its welcome, particularly once the dinosaurs turn up, and there’s a cheerful rush towards the climactic scenes that’s missing from more ponderous epics. The end for Gwangi, staged inside a Gothic church, is very impressively done and shows a nice clash between the raw power of the dinosaur and human structures.

The Valley of Gwangi: ***

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