Minus James Cameron’s multi millions, but with a much more empathetic, human script by Eric Ambler, this 1958 effort may not be the Titanic’s maiden voyage on fiction film (that honour goes to Werner Klingler and Herbert Selpin’s 1943 German Nazi propaganda film of the same name) but is twice as moving as the box office king of the world.
The William MacQuitty production shot at Pinewood Studios, captures incredible human bravery and sacrifice across the classes with the stoic dignity and restrain of the performances rather than CGI. With plenty of grandeur, it never puts spectacle before emotion. Watching couples throw themselves overboard hand in hand, it’s impossible not to think of this century’s defining disaster at the Twin Towers, though no single moment is more dreadful than that of a frail old man clutching a young toddler who gets left behind as bodies fall all around them. In the Darwinian surge aftward, each is just as useless as the other, but even without the slightest hope of survival, the old man continues comforting the boy, promising him they’ll soon find his Mummy. Such frequent glimpses of common humanity in the midst of such an overwhelming ordeal don’t need the help of Celine Dion to put a lump in the throat.
Director Roy Ward Baker has the sense and decency not to hang this historic catastrophe on a juvenile love story, instead consistently cutting across the decks to build a sense of inevitable peril for each crew member and every passenger. As over two-thousand people sink to their deaths and a series of human errors stops other ships from reaching them, images of countless bodies hurling themselves into icy waters serve as a deathly warning against the arrogance of industry. The sinking of the unsinkable ship is a not-so symbolic rude awakening to the illusionary blind faith put in technology at the beginning of the twentieth century; a time when Britannia ruled the waves and our feats in the field of shipbuilding penetrated the imaginations (and advertising) of the nation.
Cameron tells us that Jack loves Rose through repetitive, declamatory dialogue, but by focusing on the teeming, desperate multitudes (from the engine room and steerage all the way up to first class and the officer’s quarters), Baker speaks to a whole country’s misplaced pride and fateful overconfidence. The docudrama telling of this tragedy in which score is rarely used in place of panicked cries (and really, one wishes it weren’t at all) is what makes the size and human cost of the doomed cruise seem so inconceivable.
Famed for an attention to detail that leaves Titanic experts Don Lynch and Ken Marschall really having to nitpick on the Criterion blu-ray commentary track, the period costumes are stitch perfect and the incredible sets just as accurate. Those sets slowly tilt as the Titanic goes under, the hydraulic creaking of the jacks that shifted them eerily used to simulate the sound of water pressing down on the hull. Even angles of what is obviously a highly detailed model in a water tank inspire awe. The shot of the submerged ship’s power going out with insect-sized lifeboats dwarfed against its giant raised propellers is so impactfully framed that Cameron could do little but copy it.
Their hearts don’t go on, but your heart can’t help but go out to the fifteen-hundred drowned souls whose lives ended under such unimaginable distress. Their last night lives in infamy and A Night to Remember is a film just as hard to forget.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on May 7, 2015