Have you seen… “A Night To Remember” (1958)


Ok, this time, we’re going to cover an actual good movie.

On April 14th, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, bringing down with it 1,500 people, and changing maritime law forever. And as many people know, in 1997, James Cameron brought Titanic to the big screen with his historical-romance-epic Titanic. To say it was a big hit would be an understatement. It became the highest-grossing film ever made at the time of its release (and still sits as the third highest today), won the Best Picture Oscar, and introduced a new generation to the story of the disaster. Even today, whenever someone thinks of the Titanic, the film comes to mind. 

However, Cameron’s film is hardly the first film ever made about the subject. In fact, dozens of films have been made about the disaster since 1912. There have been full-length films, television films, short films, animated children’s films, and even the Nazis made their own propaganda film about the disaster back in 1943 (seriously, that’s a real thing). Out of all of them, one stands out that I think holds a candle equal to (and some have said is better than) the James Cameron film. That film is the British-produced film “A Night To Remember.”

Based on the 1955 book of the same name by Walter Lord, and released in 1958, “A Night To Remember” was – for 39 years – the biggest film made about the disaster. It was given a fairly large budget (the most expensive film made by the British at the time), starred a large cast (of mostly British actors), and several survivors of the disaster acted as technical consultants on the film. 

“A Night To Remember” was the passion project of producer William MacQuitty, who grew up in Belfast, Ireland at the same time the ship was being built at the Harland and Wolffe shipyard. It was his dream to see the ship he grew up idolizing to be recreated on the big screen, and I think that for the time and even now, he succeeded. 

I don’t think that there’s any point in going into detail about the plot. It’s the Titanic disaster. If you’ve seen the Cameron film, you mostly know the drill. However, in this film, the historical events are given much greater emphasis. This film contains many aspects of the disaster that were either toned down or ignored completely in Cameron’s adaptation. 

First off, the 1997 Cameron film primarily focuses on fictitious characters (sorry people, Jack and Rose were not real people). Sure, real-life characters did appear in the film and play a role in the story, but most of the film’s focus was on Jack and Rose. In the 1958 version, most of the characters being portrayed are real-life people. They are all given a good amount of screen time, which gives context to who they were and what their role in the disaster was. 

Most of them are played excellently by their respective actors. I do say most, though, because some of the child actors in the film aren’t very good, but that’s to be expected for a film from this era. And while there really isn’t any one main character in the film, if there’s any that do come close, it would be second officer Charles Lightoller, who gets a good share of scenes.

Second, since the Cameron film focuses on romance, many important events that took place on the Titanic are either toned down or ignored completely. In that first category, iceberg warnings were sent to the Titanic. In the Cameron film, there is only a brief scene where we see Captain Smith receive a single Iceberg warning report from the ship’s radio operators. 

In this film, there are several scenes regarding the iceberg warnings, including the infamous S.S. Mesba and S.S. Californian reports (more on the Californian later). Another thing that was mostly ignored in the Cameron film but given more time here, is the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors. Cameron only had the scene where Smith was told that the Carpathia was on the way, and the ending where we’ve seen the Carpathia finally arrived at the scene and it’s the immediate aftermath.

I reckon that few people who’ve seen that film would know about the struggle that the crew of the Carpathia went through to get to the Titanic’s aid as soon as possible. In “A Night To Remember” though, the Carpahtia practically gets its own subplot, regarding Captain Arthur Rostron and his determination to get to the wreck site.

The role of the S.S. Californian in the disaster has sparked controversy to this day

Cameron also ignored some elements of the story completely – like, no mention at all. One controversial element that was completely ignored is the role of the S.S. Californian. To keep it short, the S.S. Californian was another ship in the same area as the Titanic. It had stopped its engines that night due to heavy ice fields blocking its route. During the night, they spotted a ship that couldn’t have been more than 10 miles away. 

For a period of about two hours, the crew watched this mysterious ship appear, stop, fire several rockets into the sky, and slowly fade from view, disappearing completely around 2 o’clock in the morning. They barely bothered to try to contact the ship to their sole radio operator being asleep. Meanwhile, on the Titanic, during the sinking, they had spotted a ship that couldn’t have been 10 miles. They tried to contact the mystery ship by radio, firing distress rockets, and flashing signal lamps, but to no avail. The ship simply ignored them, until the Titanic finally sank at 2:20 AM.

There’s been plenty of debate about this aspect of the story. Whether or not it was actually the Titanic the Californian had seen, or whether or not it was the Californian the Titanic had seen, or whether or not the Californian actually would’ve been able to help out at all. For this reason, most films made about the disaster (including Cameron) ignore the story of the Californian completely. But not “A Night To Remember.” 

As with the Carpathia, the crew of the Californian gets their own subplot. Many more events, ignored in the Cameron film are given proper inclusion, too many to mention here. I should mention, though, the inclusion of the Californian plotline was not without controversy even at the time, as Stanly Lord (The captain of the Californian during the Titanic disaster) and his son began to publicly protest the former’s portrayal in the film, and spent the rest of their respective lives attempting to clear themselves of the disaster.

The film also does a better job at presenting and showcasing events that were portrayed in both films. One that always springs to my mind is the big scene, where the Titanic hits the iceberg. In the Cameron film, this scene is pretty much an entire action sequence, with many shots showing different aspects of this event. However, personally, I feel the Collision Scene in the Cameron Version is a bit too long. 

Contrary to Facebook “Fact” Memes that state that the collision scene is 37 seconds long (the estimated amount of time it took for the Titanic to hit the Iceberg from the moment the lookouts spotted to the actual hit), the collision scene is actually a full five minutes long, complete with a scene with Jack and Rose making out. Compare that with “A Night To Remember,” where it takes only a minute from the moment the lookouts spot it to the actual hit. Kind of goes to show that people who say old films are slow, really haven’t seen a lot of old movies. 

Even the impact shot of the iceberg hitting the Titanic, I’d say, is better at conveying the real event. In the Cameron film, we see an underwater shot of the bow hitting the iceberg. Here, right when the ship hits it, we cut to a shot of a waiter in the first-class dining room noticing the glasses and plates shaking. It leaves a greater impact (I honestly didn’t intend to make a pun) on the audience, in my opinion.

Also, I know all filmmakers are influenced by earlier filmmakers in one way or another, but when it comes to comparing “A Night To Remember” to James Cameron’s Titanic, I can’t help but wonder if James Cameron “borrowed” certain elements from this movie. By that, I mean certain sequences of shots are the same in both films. 

For example, both films depict the crew members shooting off distress rockets. In both films, when they begin shooting off the rockets, there is a shot of them firing the first rocket, then a shot of the passengers looking up to the sky in reaction, then a shot of the ensuing fireworks in the sky, ending like a close up of a little girl’s face reacting to the bright lights of the rocket.

Another similar sequence involves the Titanic’s Band. In both films, as in real life, the Titanic’s Band played on to the very end, supposedly the last song they played was “Nearer My God To Thee.” Towards the end of the sinking in “A Night To Remember,” the Band briefly breaks up to save themselves but decides to continue playing when the bandleader starts to play “Nearer My God To Thee.” In Cameron’s “Titanic,” the SAME exact sequence plays out with the band briefly breaking up to just play “Nearer My God To Thee” as the ship sinks. There are plenty of more similar sequences between the two films. I reckon, there are probably a few videos on Youtube comparing the two.

With all this said, I will say that there are a few things that the Cameron film does have over this film. The most obvious thing would be the special effects. Both films used practical effects (although Cameron did have the luxury of CGI). For the time, “A Night to Remember” has very good effects and model work, but compared to today, they are a bit dated, and compared to the latter film, it’s pretty night and day, which has better effects (although when you have a James Cameron sized budget, I’d say you have an unfair advantage). 

The film also (despite being the most expensive British film ever made up to that point) does show that it did have a slightly limited budget, as it utilizes stock footage for certain scenes. For example, at the beginning, when the Titanic is departing port, footage of similar ships from the same era leaving port is being used. And during the sinking, a couple of shots showing the engine rooms and lower compartments flooding is footage from the 1943 Nazi-produced Titanic film.

And while the film is generally pretty accurate about the disaster, it does have its inaccuracies and changes. The most obvious one is towards the end of the sinking. In both real life and the Cameron film, the Titanic broke in half before it sank. In “A Night To Remember,” it sinks in one piece. Context is needed, though, for why this is. When the Titanic sank in 1912, there was inconsistent testimony for how it exactly sank. Some survivors said it broke in half, some said it sank in one piece, and others couldn’t see it at all as it was so dark. 

The inquiry ultimately ruled that it sank in one piece (there is a conspiracy theory that exists today that the owners of the Titanic influenced the decision, so as to not make the construction material look bad). This is why many Titanic films pre-1984 (the year the wreck was discovered) portray the ship sinking in one piece. Personally, it doesn’t bother me that much. I take it more as a reflection of how we once thought these events went down.

Despite these faults, “A Night To Remember” holds up pretty well today. Despite its age, it’s still a very well-crafted movie for its time and certainly shows that you can tell the story of the Titanic disaster even with a much lower budget than $200 million. What really impressed me, is that the film is able to pack together so much history and characters in just a two-hour running time, and it never feels like there’s too much. It’s very well done. Overall, I think it’s about time that James Cameron allows this film to share the spotlight. I do like both films, but personally, I feel this film has the edge. Something that it has over that film is a unique documentary feel. It’s like when you watch, you feel like you’re there watching all this play out.

Side Note: Several actors associated with the James Bond series appear in this film. These actors include Laurence Naismith, Michael Goodliffe, Honor Blackman, and Desmond Llewelyn.

There is also a (very contested) rumor that a pre-fame Sean Connery portrayed a crew member in the film. If that is true, is the man on the left in the image below Connery?