“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” (1958) Review
There have been many versions about the April 1912 sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Many versions. And I have personally seen at least five of them. One of them happened to be the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”.
Directed by Roy Ward Baker, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is based upon historian Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the historical sinking. Since the 1958 movie was based upon a historical book instead of a novel, Baker, producer William MacQuitty and screenwriter Eric Ambler approached the film’s plot in a semi-documentary style. Even the movie’s leading character turned out to be the Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, who was portrayed by actor Kenneth More. The movie also featured other historical figures such as J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, Captain Edward J. Smith and Margaret “Molly” Brown. Due to this semi-documentary approach, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is regarded as the best movie about the Titanic.
I cannot deny that there is a great deal to admire about “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”. Not only do I feel it is an excellent movie, I could see that Roy Ward Baker did his best to re-create that last night aboard the Titanic. He and Ambler gave the audience glimpses into the lives of the ship’s crew and passengers. The movie also went into great detail of their efforts to remain alive following the ship’s brief collision with an iceberg. Some of my favorite scenes include the Irish steerage passengers’ efforts to reach the life boats on the upper decks, the wireless operators’ (David McCullum and Kenneth Griffin) efforts to summon other ships to rescue the passengers and crew, and passenger Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire)’s conflict with the sole crewman in her lifeboat. But my favorite scene has to be that moment when the Titanic’s stern rose high before the ship sank into the Atlantic Ocean.
For a film shot in black and white during the late 1950s, I must admit that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” looked very handsome. Legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s phtography struck me as sharp and very elegant. I do not know if Yvonne Caffin’s costume designs for the movie’s 1912 setting was completely accurate, but they certainly did add to the movie’s late Edwardian atmosphere. Especially those costumes for the first-class passengers. I do have to give kudos to the special effects team led by Bill Warrington. He and his team did a superb job in re-creating the ocean liner’s historic sinking. I am even more impressed that their work still manages to hold up after fifty-four years.
The cast of “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was led by Kenneth More, who portrayed Second Officer Lightoller with his usual energetic charm. More was ably supported by the likes of Laurence Naismith as Captain Smith, Michael Goodliffe’s poignant portrayal of ship designer Thomas Andrews, Frank Lawton as J. Bruce Ismay, George Rose as the inebriated survivor Charles Joughin and Tucker McGuire’s colorful portrayal of American socialite Molly Brown. The movie also featured future “AVENGERS” and Bond veteran Honor Blackman; David McCullum of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” and “N.C.I.S.” fame; and Bernard Fox, who will also appear in James Cameron’s 1997 movie about the Titanic sinking. But despite the numerous good performances, I honestly have to say that I found nothing exceptional about any of them.
Like many others, I used to believe that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was the best movie about the Titanic. After this latest viewing, I do not believe I can maintain that opinion any longer. In fact, I am beginning to suspect there may not be any “ultimate” Titanic film. And “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is not perfect, as far as I am concerned. Many have applauded the filmmakers for eschewing any fictional melodrama or using the sinking as a backdrop for a fictional story. Personally, I could not care less if a Titanic movie is simply a fictional melodrama or a semi-documentary film. All I require is a first-rate movie that will maintain my interest.
“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” began with a montage of newsreel clips featuring the Titanic’s christening in Belfast. One, the ship was never christened. And two, I could see that the newsreel footage used in the movie dated from the 1930s. The movie tried its best to allow the audience to identify with some of its characters. But due to “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” being a docudrama, I feel that it failed to give an in-depth study of its more prominent characters . . . making it difficult for me to identify with any of them.
I realize that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was a British production, but I was amazed at the low number of American passengers featured in the cast. The 1953 film, “TITANIC” suffered from a similar malady – the only British characters I could recall were members of the crew. I do remember at least three Americans in the 1958 movie – Molly Brown; Benjamin Guggenheim, portrayed by Harold Goldblatt and a third passenger, whose name escapes me. I was satisfied with McGuire’s performance as Molly Brown and the nameless actor who portrayed the third American passenger. But Goldblatt portrayed Guggenheim as a member of the British upper class in both attitude and accent. It almost seemed as if the filmmakers wanted Guggenheim to be viewed as a British gentleman, instead of an American one.
Walter Lord’s book made it clear that one of the last songs performed by Titanic’s band was NOT “Nearer My God to Thee”. Yet, the filmmakers chose to perpetrate this myth in the movie by having the remaining passengers and crew sing the song en masse before the ship began to sink in earnest. This pious attitude continued in a scene aboard the R.M.S. Carpathia, in which the survivors listened to a religious sermon. Instead of projecting an air of melancholy or despair, the survivors, thanks to Ward Baker, seemed to project an air of the British stiff upper lip cliche. I feel that a melancholic air among the survivors would have made the scene seem more human.
I cannot deny that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is a first-rate look at the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. More importantly, the movie and especially the visual effects still hold up very well after half-a-century. But the movie possesses flaws that make it difficult for me to regard it as the best Titanic movie ever made. Perhaps . . . there is no best Titanic movie. Just bad or well made ones.