Sunday, December 19, 2004

#7: A Night To Remember

CONSIDER

You could fill a whole shelf with movies about the sinking of the Titanic. The first one was made in 1915, just three years after the ship actually sank. A Night To Remember (1958, dir. Roy Ward Baker, written by Eric Ambler from the book by Walter Lord). This one's mostly for the history buffs, I think. Lord's book is an exhaustively researched account of the sinking of the Titanic, and the movie crams as much of what actually happened as possible into its two hours of screen time. I think it's a much better treatment of the subject than the 1997 Titanic, but that's kind of damning with faint praise. Something I didn't know: Fox has produced at least two Titanic films; the first was in 1953 (and won a best screenplay Oscar). Like James Cameron's version, the 1953 film had a fictional love story set on the Titanic: the IMDB has maybe the best ending to any summary on this one: "Their problems soon seem minor when the ship hits an iceberg." That's about the size of it.

So: A Night To Remember. There aren't any fictional subplots in this version, although they do give Second Officer Lightroller all the good lines, whether someone else actually said them or not. The sets look pretty accurate, by which I mean they look just like the sets in Titanic. The grand staircase and first-class dining area get just as much emphasis in this film as the later one: you can see the staircase in the back of this still. The movie opens with a dedication ceremony for the Titanic that never happened, and you get to see the ship dragged out from the drydock into open water. They did this with archival footage of other ships, but it's really impressive. William MacQuitty, who produced the movie, actually saw the Titanic launched. Didn't see it sink, though.

One of the problems with writing anything based on actual events is that people who were there are going to be very concerned with how they appear in the movie. In this movie the big loser is J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line. I don't remember how he's treated in the 1997 version, but in this one, he's an ineffectual coward who sneaks onto a lifeboat at the last minute. Apparently his wife was none too pleased with this movie, for good reason. Everyone else comes off all right, though. My favorite character is Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ship. His last scene in the first class dining room is the one point where the movie achieves a real sense of tragedy. An honorable mention goes to the ship's baker, who gets increasingly drunker and drunker during the sinking: he has a bottle of whiskey hidden in a dresser drawer and keeps returning to it until his cabin is underwater. As it turns out, this actually happened: despite not being allowed to have alcohol on board per White Star policy, this guy did, and told people about it afterwards. He survived, of course: patron saint of drunks and all that.

Because the filmmakers where very concerned with accuracy and completeness, the movie spends a lot of time on boats that were near the Titanic when she sank, most notably the Californian. This is the boat that was closest, but didn't respond to wireless calls for help or distress flares. Actually, Cameron apparently shot a whole sequence on the Californian as well, but cut it from the film. These guys come off a little worse than Ismay: the captain can't be bothered to get out of bed, the wireless operator goes to sleep and misses the calls for help, and the crewmen who see the flares decide that the Titanic must be celebrating. These guys are my kind of sailors. That said, these sequences kind of kill the momentum of what's going on on the Titanic itself, and I don't think the movie would be worse for cutting them.

The special effects are pretty impressive: there are a lot of model shots that look passable, if not great. In addition, a gigantic replica of the center portion of the ship was constructed on land, and some shots were done with other ships painted to look like the Titanic. At the time this was made, people didn't know the Titanic broke in two before she sank, so that doesn't happen, but through the magic of a tilted set and even more tilted cameras, you do get to see the mad rush to the back of the boat as it starts going down, complete with people hanging from the railings and sliding haphazardly down the deck into the icy water. They filmed the engine room sequences in the last working engine like what was on the Titanic, on a dam somewhere in England. And all the other sequences that you'd expect are here: Captain Smith returns to the bridge to go down with the ship, Thomas Andrews stands in the empty first class lounge listening to the creaks of the ship as it goes down, Guggenheim and his valet dress formally to go down like gentlemen (I wonder what the valet thought of that, though; I think I'd quit at that point), Molly Brown is sturdy, vulgar, and American.

All the detail is kind of the problem, though: the movie feels to me like it's too much just one thing after another. And then this happened, and then that happened, and so on. I think it would be a wonderful movie if you knew a little about the sinking of the Titanic and wanted to learn more, or if you were already a buff. I'm not really in either of those categories, so I can't recommend the movie wholeheartedly.

14 comments:

Rog said...

Check this out:

Amazon.com: DVD: The Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set (Amazon.com Exclusive)pretty wild.

Matthew Dessem said...

Rog,

Yeah, the minute I win the lottery...

Mabuse said...

Ismay comes off just as badly in the 1997 version.

Matthew Dessem said...

I'll take your word for it...

monoceros4 said...

The scenes with the Californian do pay off in the final lines of the movie, when the captain of the Carpathia is informed that the Californian has just arrived and is asking if there is anything that it can do to assist. "Tell them no, nothing," he says. "Everything humanly possible has been done." Which only reminds us more sharply how everything possible had not been done.

Great site, let me add.

Matthew Dessem said...

Monoceros4,

Excellent point. I still think they hurt the pacing a little, but I can see now how they fit thematically.

John B. said...

I’ve seen this film once before, on television in the early 1970’s, and I have always remembered being captivated by it. It had a lot of appeal for a teenage boy. In the interim the James Cameron version has become the benchmark Titanic film for most people, and so I wondered what I would think about A Night To Remember 35 years later. My verdict: it holds up very well, and my response to it now is not all that different from my response to it as a teenager. It’s a great story, well told. And it’s the version I prefer.

This isn’t a documentary, and it isn’t a fiction like the Cameron film. There are a few small liberties taken for dramatic effect, but by and large this is an accurate re-enactment. The filmmakers were so concerned about the accuracy of the piece that the commentary provided by Criterion was recorded not by film artists or critics but by Titanic historians. So in what terms do you couch a discussion of this film? Do you approach it as art or history? A criticism of the weaselly depiction of J. Bruce Ismay, recognized as untrue even at the time of this film’s release, seems valid. I’d be less inclined to make the same criticism of a similar characterization in Cameron’s film.

A Night to Remember is a pretty straightforward, plainspoken film. With a story this strong, not much else is needed. The many vignettes played by a series of uniformly good character actors humanize the film, and this episodic nature did not bother me at all. Nor did I find the portions of the films devoted to the Californian or the Caledonian to be an unnecessary diversion. In a re-enactment of this kind, I don’t think you could have done without them. They are essential to an understanding of what happened that night and for me did not compromise the film’s momentum.

Interesting too how the same story can lend itself to such different approaches, like a classroom full of art students sketching one model and nonetheless producing very individual finished drawings depending on point of view and technical skills. Titanic is essentially a memory piece and, because of technical advances, is spectacular in ways that aren’t possible for the older film. A Night to Remember develops themes of class distinction, hubris, and the ending of an era. Same model, different sketches.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

Can't wait to see what you think of And the Ship Sails On, which also develops themes of class distinction, hubris, and the ending of an era, using a similar model. And is much worse than Titanic.

Anonymous said...

Since I figured I was unlikely to ever get the chance to watch A Night To Remember on the big screen, I have watched Titanic on a small screen since I posted here last time. Figured that was a fairer side by side comparison. Once you watch Titanic on a television, you really do see that mostly what it has going for it is its size.

John B. said...

That last anonymous comment was by me. Sorry about that.

Matthew Dessem said...

John B.,

I think you're underestimating Billy Zane's performance as a silent movie villain!

steve roberts said...

Here's what I said:

Though not a single established "star" was in this movie, the ensemble does an understated job of subtle acting, not hamming it too badly unless hamminess is called for (see "the drunken baker".) Though many of the details of the event can be recalled by anyone that's seen the crappy rip-off Titanic, many details of this much more historical account are gripping and often, sadly, surprising. Watching the Californian, a ship seven miles from the Titanic never catch on about the disaster is suspenseful and gut-wrenching, and the sudden death of "the newlyweds," clearly the inspiration for DiCaprio and Winslet's parts in Titanic, was a jaw-dropper.

All in all, the movie is most likely too slow and too obvious a plot for any but the commited historical genre movie-watchers, but it does reward it's audience with the kind of simple, unshowy acting that has all but disappeared these days.

Anonymous said...

How do you not know that J. Bruce Ismay is portrayed just as badly in the James Cameron Titanic movie??? You do not remember that moment where he sneaks into the lifeboat as the officer says to lower away?
You must not have been a big fan of the 1997 movie. In both movies, he was portrayed as arrogant and put his life above those of others. As a major owner of the ship, he may not have been the main character among the others...but he did play a major role in the film and the events that led to the ship's demise as well...among the many other mistakes that happened and led to the ship going down.

Anonymous said...

ANtR is a good film that actually uses uncredited scenes from the 1943 German film Titanic. The story of the Californian is accurately portrayed and is important because the reason there weren't enough lifeboats was based on a correct assumption. This assumption was that another ship would always be nearby to pick up passengers in case of a sinking, Ships traveled in regular lanes (think cars on an expressway). The assumption was correct; unfortunately, the Californian made a series of tragic mistakes that doomed the Titanic passengers. Ismay was blamed right from the start in the popular media (especially in the US). ANtR may not be a great film, but it beats the other Titanic films.