With James Cameron’s 3-D reconstruction of his version of the Titanic disaster about to hit theaters, Dave Kehr in the New York Times reminds us of a far superior film, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, of which he notes that: “the most sober in tone and historically reliable of the Titanic films remains Roy Ward Baker’s British production of 1958 A Night to Remember. An early release of the Criterion Collection, the film has now been reissued, in Blu-ray and standard definition, from a thoroughly restored print, accompanied by a generous selection of supplementary material.
Working from a screenplay by his frequent collaborator, the suspense novelist Eric Ambler, and a best-selling book by Walter Lord, Baker solidifies the metaphor long attached to the Titanic story, turning the doomed ship into a microcosm, a representation in miniature of a society about to submerge itself into the horrors of World War I.
Previous versions emphasized the gallantry of the upper classes, as gentlemen in impeccable evening clothes stepped aside to allow their magnificently bejeweled wives and towheaded children to climb into the lifeboats. (The German version, inventing a subplot that Mr. Cameron’s film would pick up on, turned the ship into a gigantic engine of runaway capitalism, pushed beyond its capacities by a greedy company chairman.) But Baker, making his film in the first full flowering of the new Great Britain that came into being with the end of the war and the collapse of imperialism, makes his hero, Kenneth More’s Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste.
The captain of the ship (Laurence Naismith) is a befuddled man of aristocratic mien and regal dimensions whose resemblance to Edward VII does not seem coincidental; the chairman of the White Star Line (Frank Lawton) is a blustery businessman whose pride turns to shame as his enterprise literally begins to sink and he takes downcast refuge among the women and children drifting away in lifeboats. Only Lightoller and his fellow midlevel officers keep their wits about them, calmly directing an evacuation that they know will be too late for many of the passengers and perhaps themselves.
With A Night to Remember the welfare state Britain of 1958 looks back on the decaying imperial kingdom of 1912, and the film is full of pointed observations about class. Baker gives far more emphasis than Cameron to the plight of the lower-class passengers in steerage, trapped below by iron gates preventing their access to the first-class decks and potential rescue.”
I was lucky enough to interview Roy Ward Baker at length in his house in London on this, and the rest of his work as a director, which also included the early Marilyn Monroe vehicle Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), and he described in detail how he shot the film, using a full-scale model of the Titanic mounted on hydraulic lifts, and the copious use of historical material to keep the film as accurate as possible. While everyone else is flocking to the theaters to see Cameron’s version, perhaps others might want to see this splendid, tragic film, which concentrates not so much on spectacle, but rather on the human drama attending this disaster. It’s a much more resonant piece of work.