An adaptation of the excellent best-selling novel of the same name by Walter Lord, the docudrama A Night to Remember is to date the most focused and accurate cinematic portrayal of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The film’s proceedings begin with the launching of the ‘unsinkable’ ocean liner, which is about to embark on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Southhampton to New York City. Unfortunately, the night of April the 14th and 15th was a night in which man’s overconfidence in their technological creations was shaken to its core. On this night, the legendary ocean liner struck an iceberg, and the much-touted watertight compartment system which supposedly rendered the ship unsinkable was not designed to cope with the extensive damage it received. As the ship was thought to be unsinkable, there were not enough lifeboats to save even half the passengers, and the sinking claimed in excess of 1,500 souls.
A Night to Remember predominantly tells the tale of the Titanic’s sinking through the eyes of Second Officer C.H. Lightoller (More); one of the heroes who survived the disaster. Prior to the fateful night, Lightoller is portrayed as a competent, affable officer. Once the ship is doomed, however, and the harsh reality of the situation sets in, he is shown as a rare man who not only copes with the surrounding chaos but thrives in it; trying his best to maintain calm and save as many lives as possible.
Walter Lord’s novel was noteworthy due to how comprehensively and exhaustively researched it was. Lord went to a lot of trouble tracking down survivors of the disaster in order to preserve their testimonials. This incredible attention to detail was carried over into the movie through a superbly constructed screenplay courtesy of Eric Ambler. Happily, during the conversion from novel to screenplay not many aspects of the historical record were compromised. A few minor changes were made, though – individuals were packaged together into “composite characters”, and certain events were modified to heighten the dramatic impact. Also, the film does not depict the ship’s splitting during its final moments, but this is easily forgivable since the splitting of the ship was not in the novel and was not confirmed until 1985 when the wreck was finally discovered. Aside from this, A Night to Remember tells the events of the Titanic disaster pretty much how they happened (at least as far as we can theorise). Titanic’s fourth officer Joseph Boxhall even served as the film’s technical advisor.
The finicky attention to detail was carried over into the production design. Whilst re-creating certain areas of the ship, photographs of the original Titanic were consulted. The production design is top-notch for a movie from the 1950s, while the special effects hold up as perfectly serviceable all these decades later. However, compared to the sheer grandeur of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic, the special effects are underwhelming and the model shots are obvious (especially since no moving people are visible on the decks during model shots). This hardly detracts from the experience, however.
Interestingly, since the filmmakers had no access to footage of Titanic’s launch, the filmmakers cleverly spliced together archival material depicting other, similar ships being launched. Although it’s pretty noticeable that we’re seeing different ships, it’s an atmospheric touch. In addition, the actors hired to play the various historical figures were chosen not only on the basis of their ability to portray the roles convincingly, but also on account of their physical resemblance to the individuals they were standing in for. The most outstanding performer in the cast (though this is mainly because he’s given the most to do) is the engaging Kenneth More, who managed to play Officer Lightoller with stirring vitality and absolute assurance. Also of note is Michael Goodliffe as Thomas Andrews, Frank Lawton as the snobby Bruce Ismay, and Laurence Naismith who did a commendable job of portraying Captain Smith. The affable David McCallum, meanwhile, is another standout as assistant wireless operator Harold Bride. However, because there are over 200 speaking roles, there isn’t a great deal of well-developed protagonists to care about or latch onto, which detracts a certain punch. As the film abruptly jumps from the ship’s launch to the events of April 14th, there was no chance for character development, which would have been beneficial.
Another area where A Night to Remember excels is in its brilliant, moving account of the behaviour of those on-board the Titanic on that fateful night. It conveys the casualness and flippancy displayed by a lot of the passengers, even when the ocean liner is doomed. Additionally, the movie portrays the slow accumulation of panic which ultimately culminates with shocking, ugly moments of baseness as well as brave and noble deeds. Throughout the sinking, it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat. One of the most powerful scenes depicts a man urging his wife and children to climb into a waiting lifeboat; his face exhibiting confidence, determination and love. But what the man knows is the fate of the ship and himself, and that he will never again gaze upon those he holds so dearly. Once the boat disappears, his mask fails, collapsing into loss and despair. It’s heart-wrenching. Perhaps the most harrowing image is that of a gentle elderly man cradling a young boy as the ship begins its final plunge; blindly assuring the boy everything will be alright, when in fact both of them will perish in the freezing water.
A tremendous strength of A Night to Remember is the way the filmmakers effectively managed to balance the many stories of the Titanic’s sinking with the indelible drama of the two other ships in the ocean that became intertwined with the disaster. The first, the Carpathia, was making full steam towards the Titanic as she was sinking but arrived too late, and was only able to save the survivors. A Night to Remember shows the happenings on-board the Carpathia that night, as the crew frantically attempted to reach the Titanic in vein. Meanwhile, the ship the Californian was stopped on the night of April 14th/15th about ten miles away and was in eyesight of the Titanic as she sank. The officers on-board the Californian saw Titanic’s distress rockets and witnessed the lights going out, yet these signs were disastrously misinterpreted and the ship’s wireless had been shut off for the night. The presence of these subplots deepens the sense of desperation.
Naturally, it’s tempting to compare A Night to Remember to James Cameron’s Titanic, but that would be as fair as comparing Gone with the Wind and Gettysburg just because the same historical event is a backdrop in both films. Titanic is a grand melodrama depicting two fictional characters caught up in a maelstrom of romance, danger, heroism, and adventure. A Night to Remember, on the other hand, is more reserved. It uses historical characters to tell an accurate story; relying on the testimonials of the Titanic survivors for nearly every sequence and line of dialogue. The two should be perceived as companion pieces which, when put together, represent the best dramatisation of the disaster to date. Of course, A Night to Remember is good enough to stand on its own (and many will argue it’s superior to Cameron’s epic), but it works on a different level when placed alongside its big-budgeted sister. Truth is, the tale of the Titanic is big enough to be witnessed from multiple vantage points, and Titanic and A Night to Remember offer the two most compelling perspectives.