Studio:The Criterion Collection Year: 1958 Cast: Kenneth More, Honor Blackman, Michael Goodliffe, David McCallum, Tucker McGuire Director: Roy Ward Baker Release Date: March 27, 2012 Rating: Not Rated for (intense situations) Run Time: 02h:3m:00s Genre(s): docudrama, drama, hitory
If we'd been steaming a few knots slower, or if we'd sighted that berg a few seconds earlier, we might not even have struck. If we'd been carrying enough lifeboats for the size of the ship instead of just enough to meet the regulations, things would have been different again, wouldn't they? - Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More)
A century after the disaster, this 1958 masterpiece remains the most thoughtful and accurate account of the Titanic's final night, as well as a gripping film in its own right.
Movie Grade: A
DVD Grade: A+
A century on, the Titanic still moves and fascinates. The shipís fall wasnít the first tragedy of the twentieth century, and it certainly wasnít the last. It arguably wasnít even the most significant sinking of the previous 100 years, an era during which grand shipbuilding projects took place in the shadow of two world wars. What Titanic possesses are the qualities of legend: horrific tragedy and powerful metaphor. An immense act of boldness (hubris?) that led to a grand failure. A number and variety of passengers, some already famous, many more unknown, allow us to imagine a limitless number of biographies, real and imagined. Alongside the human mysteries are technical ones: what brought the great ship down, and what was the experience of that cold night. With time, the horrific elements have faded in immediacy, yet the market for books and films is as strong as ever. Titanic survives, largely, as a ship of stories. Of all the attempts to tell the shipís story, Britainís 1958 A Night to Remember stands as the most honest and thoughtful, if not entirely the most popular.
Roy Ward Bakerís film takes as its inspiration Walter Lordís still definitive 1955 book of the same title. The novelistic, but entirely non-fiction, bestseller was the first serious attempt to gather together all of the extant information on Titanic in a digestible form. Itís likely that the book came about at the perfect time: not-quite-fifty years from the sinking, there was plenty of time and distance from the event to allow for thoughtful analysis, yet a great many of the survivors and related figures were still alive and willing to speak of their experiences. The film used this material as a basis, and the result is a film that certainly looks and feels authentic, even if historians may have a few quibbles. (The launching ceremony that opens the film? Never happened.) This one introduces us to a few key players before the ship ever sets sail, with the familiar class distinctions established early on. Thereís something appropriately British about the film, though, in the way that it presents the lens of class in very sly ways. It always rings a bit false to me, in other films, when the rich sit around talking about being rich and the poor hang out talking about being poor. Baker presents the divisions as obvious, but a matter of fact. An essential element of the tragedy is that it never really occurred to anyone that they were doing anything wrong, and this movie gets that. If thereís a primary point of view character here, itís in the representation of real-life second officer Charles Lightoller (played by prolific British film star Kenneth More). As likeably portrayed, he represents something of a middle ground between the more famous crew members and the passengers. Many of the familiar figures are here: Bruce Ismay, Captain Smith, designer Thomas Andrews, Molly Brown, as well as an assortment of real and fictional passengers both wealthy and otherwise. Baker doesnít spend too much time on any single passenger, and the lack of a solidly sympathetic main character may be a bit of a deficit, but the expansive scope more than compensates.
Comic relief, such as there is, comes from a character based on Titanicís chief baker, Charles Joughin. The real-life baker gave up his lifeboat seat in favor of a female passenger, had a few drinks before riding the shipís aft rail all the way down. The last passenger off of Titanic, he tread water for hours before being pulled into a lifeboat. Improbably, he not only survived but suggested that he hardly noticed the cold. In Joughinís case, a few drinks certainly didnít hurt. In the film, heís shown heading back to his cabin several times for a nip. It would be a little silly and mean-spirited if Joughin had died or hadnít been a bit of a hero. As it is, itís the closest that the film comes to a bit of silliness, and the closest it comes to crossing the line into exploitation. Like any docudrama with tragedy as its subject, the filmmakers here risked tastelessness in creating a satisfyingly entertaining narrative without seeming to revel in death. A Night to Remember better succeeds in walking that line than any other Titanic film, and better than most disaster movies in general. Indeed, that very tastefulness may have doomed the film, upon its initial release, to relative failure at the British box office. It has aged extraordinarily well, though, without the period flourishes that render other movies on the subject as novelties rather than classics.
The number of Titanic films is enough to make the sinking of the great liner almost its own genre. The first, starring actual survivor Dorothy Gibson, premiered less than a month after the sinking, and each decade since has brought at least one more: cartoons, action movies, soaps, TV miniseries, and one Nazi propaganda film whose filming directly lead to the execution of its director. So itís no small praise to call A Night to Remember the best, most accurate and intelligent of the lot. At worst, itís a close second, depending on how one feels about the work of one Mr. James Cameron, whose 1997 epic casts a very large shadow. Iím a fan of that film, but in allowing the soap opera of Rose and Jack to take center stage, it often feels as though itís missing a bit of the point. The scope here is a bit broader, even as the scale necessarily canít match the more recent film. This one is more honest, and more trusting of its subject to move and inspire us without much need to embellish.
As for the disc, it's certainly no surprise when Criterion puts together a great package, and this one's no exception. The crisp black and white is beautifully presented in this original-element restoration, especially given the film's age. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is limited compared to more modern soundtracks but is entirely effective. The extras are also top notch: First, the Commentary Track from Titanic historians Don Lynch and Ken Marschall is engaging, especially for those with interest in Titanic itself. The two are well able to discuss the historical background--the things that the film gets wrong, and added depth on the many things that the movie gets right. Worth a listen. Next up is a vintage 1993 documentary on the making of the feature, The Making of a Night to Remember, which includes both producer William MacQuitty and writer Walter Lord, and focuses on the translation of Lord's book to film. Emmar Hart, Survivor is a recorded interview from 1990 with a spry and engaging survivor. En Natt Att Minnas is a Swedish television special from 1962 focusing on survivor Angnes Sandstrom and her children. The final disc feature is a recent hour-long BBC documentary The Iceberg That Sank Titanic, which contrasts the history of the ship with the story of the fatal iceberg, and science-y bits about icebergs in general. Lastly, a full color booklet is included with liner notes and essays, as well as stills. Fans of the movie will likely stick with the feature, but the extras are a treasure-trove for viewers whose interest goes beyond the movie to the ship herself.
Titanic lends itself to viewing through a great many lenses, which is a great part of the reason that the story survives. In Bakerís film, we are privy to a number of mistakes, great and small, that would have all passed into history forgotten and unremarked-upon had it not been for the extraordinarily unlikely iceberg that found its way much further south than anyone had reason to expect. Bakerís structure is brutal and brilliant: knowing the outcome, we see each poor decision limit the hope of survival for the passengers onboard, while the passengers and crew continue on, entirely unaware of any danger. Lifeboats were deemed largely irrelevant. Ice warnings via wireless were ignored in favor of frivolous messages home from wealthy passengers. The captain of a nearby ship misinterpreted distress messages. By the late night of April 14th, 1912, all of those entirely human decisions had coalesced into an entirely inescapable destiny. Any one thing, right up to the moment of impact, might have saved Titanic. Even a few seconds might have prevented or altered a collision that was hardly unavoidable. Making a virtue of out foreknowledge, Baker builds toward a chilling final act in which all options have been exhausted by several unrelated and independently unremarkable acts of men women who couldnít see what was right ahead.