A Night To Remember


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A Night To Remember
"Gives the sense that humans are almost incidental in the battle between a man-made Titan and a force of nature." | Photo: Criterion Collection

The original blockbuster film about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night To Remember has since been eclipsed in most people's memories by James Cameron's hit, but its very different tone and its impressive level of authenticity means there are plenty of reasons why it remains worth watching. Without the cultural filter of its successor, it feels much more raw and immediate, bringing us closer to the doomed ship's passengers as they understood themselves at the time. Though in places their old fashioned manners risk making them seem twee, the film is surprisingly gripping throughout and it succeeds in creating characters we can care about even when they have limited screen time. It also provides a powerful sense of the social impact of the tragedy.

One of the film's outstanding features is Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography. From the opening sequence, where attempts to read the credits as the waves roll past will make you feel a little seasick, it's full of innovative techniques that bring the story to life. It's definitely worth catching on the big screen, but even on the small screen it has an epic sense of scale - viewers will really feel the massive ship towering above them as it waits in dock, and later the drop down to those lifeboats looks perilously far. There are few romantic seascapes here; instead the focus is on the enormity of the ship itself (inside, a maze where some passengers will find themselves lost), which leaves the greater vastness of the sea moe horrible for being unseen. Scenes of water entering the ship are scarce, and more powerful for it. As in all the best horror, we fear most what we cannot observe directly.

Copy picture

The real genius of Eric Ambler's screenplay is to balance that horror with a delicately framed comedy of manners. There's something terribly English about the way the ship's aristocrats face their fate, politely fretting about waking the children or immersing themselves in card games with a promise to settle the winnings later. It's old fashioned stiff upper lip stuff, but believable, and perhaps as good a way to face disaster as any other. Of course, we also see the flipside of this, with class no barrier to some men's desire to force their way into the lifeboats. The generally well researched story is let down by its perpetuation of certain myths, such as the idea that people thought the ship unsinkable and the notion that steerage class passengers were forcibly kept below decks, but it still gets the main points across effectively.

Through the melee of this complex ensemble piece, certain characters stand out. There's Kenneth More as the second officer determined to save as many people as he can; Laurence Naismith as the captain frantically trying to put right initial mistakes; Kenneth Griffith as the wireless operator hanging on to the last; and George Rose as Charles Joughin, the tattooed boy from Birkenhead who was the last person to leave the ship and live. Honor Blackman, David McCallum and Andrew Keir round out a strong cast, and there's even a cameo from a young Sean Connery.

Where other disaster movies struggle to involve viewers in the human story behind dramatic events, A Night To Remember largely concentrates on the events themselves and lets the human story unfold around them. This gives the sense that humans are almost incidental in the battle between a man-made Titan and a force of nature. It gives the film a lasting power that makes it an impressive tribute to those whom very few remember directly today.

Reviewed on: 15 Apr 2012
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A Night To Remember packshot
The story of the sinking of the Titanic.
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Director: Roy Ward Baker

Writer: Walter Lord, Eric Ambler

Starring: Kenneth More, Honor Blackman, John Cairney, Laurence Naismith, Kenneth Griffith, George Rose, David McCallum, Andrew Keir

Year: 1958

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2012

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