I don’t think there’s anything unfair in comparing James Cameron’s sappy 1997 opus Titanic to the 1958 film about the same event, A Night to Remember, in part because (according to IMDb) Cameron only embarked on his project after seeing this film; as a result, “ideas, plot lines, conversations and characters” were lifted straight from this movie to suit Cameron’s purposes. I don’t think the two movies are trying to accomplish fundamentally different goals, either. Yes, it’s true that Titanic is shown largely through the eyes of a cloying mismatched romantic pairing, whereas A Night to Remember has no true single protagonist – the closest we get is Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More), who by virtue of being the most level-headed during the catastrophe seems to hold not just the passengers, but the whole movie together. Still, both movies are essentially attempting to tell the story of the famed ship’s sinking in a visceral manner, putting us on board the ocean-liner and feeling the terror as the boat slowly, slowly slips beneath the waves. Save for the one’s emphasis on teenage romance, the scope of both films is roughly the same. I’m saying all this to aver that the films are similar enough that I can hold them up and compare them side by side without doing either a disservice. I want to make sure the statement to follow will–ahem–hold water, so to speak.
A Night to Remember is a thousand times better than Titanic.
Unlike Cameron’s film, here there are no villains. Even Bruce Ismay, the co-owner of the shipping line which owned the Titanic who snuck onto a lifeboat to avoid becoming one of the 1500 casualties of the disaster, cannot be faulted entirely for the decision. Yes, there’s more honor in staying aboard to let others flee, and it’s tempting to see his “fault” in the many deaths from the sinking. But godssake, he’s just a man – even if he were responsible for the dearth of lifeboats, he did not cause the accident, and apparently under-equipping ships was standard operating procedure at the time. Other regular men are shown just as eager to save their own lives at the expense of others; e.g. those sailors in lifeboats who refused to return for victims screaming for help in the freezing water for fear that the clamor to get to safety would risk capsizing their vessels, or the men who stand huddled on the hull of an overturned lifeboat, batting away desperate survivors with oars to keep them from weighing down their raft. No doubt the selflessness of somebody like Lightoller is extraordinarily admirable, but there is no shame in attempting to preserve one’s own life. Such actions are properly viewed as shocking, but it would be cruel to consider them cowardice.
But it’s not just the human touch that A Night to Remember adds where its progeny tended toward a movie quote-unquote “cinematic” vision that makes it something special. There’s an intensity here that doesn’t require people jumping off the deck and slamming into the propellors, or daring dives through underwater portions of the ship. One of the brightest spots here, even though we know it’s futile, is the repeated firing of flares into the sky as the Titanic sinks, in an effort to get assistance from a ship just ten miles away. The grim look on the faces of the Titanic’s crew each time they look longingly at the unmoving ship on the horizon, it’s devastating. It doesn’t require some big action sequence, all it requires it the combination of the knowledge that most everybody on the Titanic is doomed and the gut-wrenching feeling of knowing that safety is essentially a mirage. Or take, as another example, the wireless operator who initially sees the iceberg’s impact as an inconvenience – complaining that a delay in the trip will keep he and his partner up all night sending messages out about it – but as the severity of the situation becomes clear, turns to frantically sending out S.O.S. to anyone within earshot. When the captain comes down to tell him that the ship’s lost, that it’s every-man-for-himself at this point, the wireless operator nods, then returns to beeping out frantically for assistance. It’s quite moving.
The film is emotionally wrenching, too. Even though there’s no one protagonist which allows us to closely identify with one character, it’s still easy to find sympathy with many of the passengers. One of the most poignant comes when Mr. Lucas (John Merivale) learns that the ship can’t be saved. With a calmness he no doubt has to strain terribly to maintain, he rouses his wife and children from bed to usher them into lifeboats. While helping his family put on life-jackets, Lucas fixes around her neck the clasp to his wife’s diamond necklace. She suddenly realizes how dire the situation is, but says nothing – yet it’s obvious in her eyes. Both man and wife are trying to be strong for one another as they are parted. It’s incredibly touching. Or how about elderly Mr. and Mrs. Isador Strauss? Where other husbands are busy convincing their wives to save themselves, Mrs. Strauss is determined: “I’ve always stayed with my husband. Why should I leave him now?” They both know the likely consequence of her remaining on-board the Titanic, but Mrs. Strauss smiles to her husband, saying, “We have been living together for many years, Isador. Wherever you go, I go.” Beautiful.
And perhaps most intriguing of all, A Night to Remember is based–quite faithfully I’m told–on a non-fiction book of the same name which gathered actual testimony from survivors. The movie was made with the assistance of some of those survivors, and their relatives, so that the characterization of these real people could be as accurate as possible. And I think that really adds to the human touch I observed above – by remembering keenly that each person in the movie is a real person and not just a “character”, that each person has his or her own hopes and fears and loves and sense of moral compunction… that goes far toward selling the drama of the situation just as much as any action sequence or special effects might. What it makes for is a wonderful, respectful, and gripping film.