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A Night to Remember, the 1958 British film adaptation of Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the brief life and agonizing death of the Titanic, has proven unsinkable. With its Olympian yet unfailingly life-size view of the disaster that scuttled illusions of twentieth-century humanity’s mechanical infallibility, it has a power to move audiences that’s impervious to age, imitation, and changing cinematic fashion. Other films about that fateful 1912 voyage have been bigger international hits—not just James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic but also Jean Negulesco’s 1953 soap opera of the same name, a box-office smash that hooked baby-boomer families when it aired on NBC’s prime-time showcase Saturday Night at the Movies in 1961. But no other version mingles a tragic understanding of technological hubris with inspiring episodes of nobility under pressure as honestly and profoundly as this one, written by Eric Ambler, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and produced by William MacQuitty. Over a half century after its premiere, A Night to Remember remains both a pioneer and a pinnacle of the docudrama form.
Ambler’s superb dramatic instincts, Baker’s command of visual sweep and focus, and MacQuitty’s drive to get things right make this film a touchstone of historical realism. They mix indelible depictions of real-life passengers and crew with vivid composite characters—historical archetypes sprung to life. Aristocrats maintain their high style, if not always noblesse oblige, as the ship glides through the chilly North Atlantic. Bourgeois honeymooners and family folk celebrate their bonds, then draw on them for courage and sacrifice when they must separate, as women and children take to the pitifully few lifeboats and men (most of them, anyway) face their fate with quiet resolve. The steerage travelers create their own bubbling melting pot with an unselfconscious vitality that eliminates ethnic boundaries and makes their ultimate neglect infuriating.
Central to the film’s success are the bit players and extras, whose liveliness spills out beyond the limits of the screen. So are its vibrant renderings of historical personalities, like the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, a meticulous craftsman who maintains his stoic humanity as he witnesses the destruction of his masterpiece. The film creates an electric cross section of a society crackling with overconfidence, on a ship that operates as a complex organism. Way above, in the crow’s nest, lookouts exhale fog on a bone-chilling night as they scan the horizon for ice. In the bowels of the ship, stokers sweat to feed the fires of two huge reciprocating engines. In between, the fleeting seaborne life of each class of passenger is laid out with equal empathy. Even the characters who are not on board register with glancing impact, like the little-known exemplar of maritime valor, the skipper of the Carpathia, Captain Arthur Rostron.
A Night to Remember has the kind of plainspoken magic that megamillions cannot buy. The use of archival clips (including the launch of the Queen Elizabeth, standing in for the Titanic) makes the film more immediate and preserves its historical character. Without sentimentality, it honors the idea that novelist L. P. Hartley articulates in the opening line of The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The teeming opening images of bystanders cheering the grand ship as it takes to water hurtle audiences back to a time when technological achievement was gritty, tangible, and a source of national pride (in the case of the Titanic, for both the Belfasters who built it and the English who paid for it). The filmmakers then cut to a shot of a locomotive—a techno-wonder from a previous generation—bringing the story’s central figure, Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, to his berth on the Titanic.
The film’s balance of grandeur, irony, and emotion pivots on Kenneth More’s Lightoller. The most sought-after British movie star of the 1950s, More was also a scandalously underrated performer who had the smarts to bring crack timing and unexpected nuance to comedies (such as the beloved antique-auto farce Genevieve, 1953), haunting dramas (Loss of Innocence, 1961), and sweeping war films (1960’s Sink the Bismarck!) alike. He grounds Lightoller in common sense and common humanity, as well as duty and protocol. A sane, supercompetent officer, Lightoller is the perfect character to anchor the complicated narrative, especially after the ship’s fatal scrape. He keeps an alert distance from everyone on board. He operates totally by the book, but he turns the pages quickly—his forward drive serves as a prod to the august, beloved skipper, Captain Edward John Smith (Laurence Naismith). At the same time, the group narrative is so involving that you never think of Lightoller as the hero. The protagonist is the ship as a whole, and the film’s energy derives from all the hopes and dreams invested in it. In a way, the film’s class consciousness adds to the illusion of the Titanic’s invulnerability. Until the iceberg cuts a gash in it below water level that’s nearly as long as a football field, the ship’s trifurcated society stays merrily afloat.
The moviemakers track a succession of individual tragedies to unflinching conclusions and counterpoint them with melancholy lyricism and even a splash of comedy. You are never conscious of suspending disbelief, partly because the film’s creative team embraces real-life incidents that are stranger than fiction. For example, the ship’s chief baker, robustly characterized by the great comic actor George Rose, survives partly because he drinks his weight in whiskey during the ordeal.
Episodes like that one come straight from Lord’s book, which influenced generations of nonfiction writers, from the New Yorker’s John McPhee to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, with its combination of veracity and you-are-there storytelling. In 2011, Del Quentin Wilber told me that Lord’s book was a model for his rendering of the day Ronald Reagan was shot, Rawhide Down.
In Ray Johnson’s documentary The Making of “A Night to Remember” (1993), Lord says that when he wrote his book, there was no mass interest in the Titanic, and from a bookish man’s point of view, that was true. But the Titanic story had pulled in crowds even when Negulesco and Billy Wilder’s former producer and cowriter Charles Brackett brought it to the screen in their concocted tale about a Europeanized socialite (Clifton Webb) and the disillusioned wife (Barbara Stanwyck) who wants to bring their kids back to Middle America—and Lord in his own acknowledgments thanks an employee of Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that produced Negulesco’s film, for being “a gold mine of useful leads.” Lord was, however, the first writer in four decades to attempt a grand-scale history of the disaster, synthesizing written sources and survivors’ firsthand accounts. He provided a full and nimble record of what had happened—the mundaneness and absurdity, as well as the heartbreak. What made it so influential as a book was Lord’s concision and almost offhand sureness. He has a casual authority. Without any fuss, he brings you right into the elegant first-class smoking room and the sweaty, steaming engine room.
That’s what the filmmakers do too. Lord dated the genesis of his interest in the subject to childhood. So did producer MacQuitty, who, as a boy of six, watched the Titanic set out from Belfast. He aimed high when he hired screenwriter Ambler, who was a lad in London when the ship was launched. In the 1930s, Ambler had begun dazzling the literary world with thrillers that were bracingly modern in their social-political awareness and technological prescience (he wrote about the A-bomb in 1936). During World War II, he worked with Carol Reed and Peter Ustinov on The Way Ahead (1944) and with John Huston on The Battle of San Pietro (1945). Returning from San Pietro, Ambler rose to head of production for the British Army’s training-film unit, becoming a master of mixing scripted scenes with archival footage and animated maps—notably in Know Your Ally: United States (1945)—and during this period spotted Roy Baker. The ambitious young Baker would work under Ambler on productions like Read All About It (1945), a demystification of newspapers, and Think It Over (1945), an attempt to teach new brigadiers how to think strategically. And the two collaborated after the war on a highly original suspense film, The October Man (1947). Baker went on to craft Morning Departure (1950), a gallant, heartrending story of a peacetime submarine that hits a wandering mine, and Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), a psychothriller featuring Marilyn Monroe’s unsettling breakthrough performance, as an out-of-control babysitter. Ambler wrote classic scripts for the Alec Guinness comedy The Card (1952) and for another compelling maritime adventure, The Cruel Sea (1953), about the British war against German U-boats.
Like Ambler and Baker, MacQuitty, too, had worked on morale-boosting documentaries and features during the war—including a 1946 documentary about reconstructing the bomb-battered city of Plymouth, The Way We Live—and this shared experience is part of what accounts for A Night to Remember’s stirring vividness. The team brought the best qualities of Britain’s fact-based war culture, including its kaleidoscopic perspectives and intelligent accessibility, into the late 1950s. Their film boasts a straightforward complexity. It emphasizes that laxness and snobbery coexisted with discipline and courage on the night when 705 were saved and roughly 1,500 were lost. It allows you to be maddened by any number of screwups and oversights, including the neglect of steerage passengers, yet still be awestruck by Lightoller’s crisp judgment, whether he’s enforcing the order of “women and children first” or struggling to release the last two lifeboats, which have collapsible sides. In one breathtaking strand of the action, one of those boats goes into the water upside down and he balances thirty men in two rows on its bow, directing them to lean one way or the other to keep it upright.
You may question some of Lightoller’s calculations—the movie does too—but when panic does grip pockets of the crew and passengers, you must admire his Kipling-esque ability to keep his head while those about him seem to be losing theirs. The glory of the movie is that the filmmakers also create many more contained roles that cut you to the quick. Nameless passengers face up to calamity—often with courage, sometimes with mortal frailties and regrets—and the crew, whether radiomen or bellboys, keep laboring to the ship’s bitter and cold end. Vignettes like that of a loving husband and father of three (John Merivale) demanding the truth from ship designer Andrews, then asserting his patriarchal authority to get his wife (Honor Blackman) and children to leave him on deck, are performed with such a rare combination of delicacy and power that they deserve to be called unforgettable.
Lord revisited the story of the Titanic in a sequel called The Night Lives On (1986) and revised some of his earlier judgments. He even wondered whether Lightoller had carried the chivalrous rule of women and children first too far, to women and children only. In his first book, Lord wrote, “What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday . . . if ice conditions had been normal . . . if the night had been rough or moonlit . . . if she had seen the berg fifteen seconds sooner—or fifteen seconds later . . . if she had hit the ice any other way . . . if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher . . . if she had carried enough boats . . . if the Californian [just ten miles away] had only come. Had any one of these ifs turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.” In his sequel, Lord delves deeper into the precautions that could have prevented disaster and declares that “the haphazard procedures of the wireless room, the casualness of the bridge, and the misassessment of what speed was safe” made it “remarkable that the Titanic steamed through ice-infested waters without coming to grief any sooner.” But Lord, in a way, was right the first time. He caught something eternal: the human need to see destiny in catastrophe. So does the movie, even when it veers into myth. The ship’s heroic band, which plays upbeat music throughout the night—rags, waltzes, and comic music-hall songs—ends, as the legend goes, with “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The moment is so emotionally complete that it’s hard to quibble. The hymn crowns a mortal adventure replete with strokes of valor from women as well as men, such as Mrs. Isidor Straus’s spurning a lifeboat so she can spend the short remainder of her life with her husband. This film, like Lord’s history, captures the final gasp of high honor in high society.
In Ambler’s greatest thriller, A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939), he writes that “the essential element in most good theater from the Oedipus of Sophocles” on is “the situation in which a person, imagining fondly that he is in charge of his own destiny, is, in fact, the sport of circumstances beyond his control.” That tragic irony animates his script. Ambler marshals his information so skillfully that he catches you up in the strands of a fatal parabola. Yet his sense of truth and decency keeps the film from becoming sadistic. You wait for the doomed to enter a “state of abandon”—in the phrase of his great fan Graham Greene—a state Ambler charts in his books. And at times they do, especially, understandably, the steerage passengers, who are denied immediate access to the lifeboats. But the overall bravery and dignity of the victims are as mighty in this film as their distress.
In Carol Reed’s movies, like The Third Man (1949), the director tilts the camera to express moral and psychological uncertainty. Throughout A Night to Remember, Baker either keeps his camera level or gently sways it to convey the rocking of the sea. It’s the sets that tilt as the ship goes under. When a rocking horse rolls menacingly into close-up in an abandoned playroom, the floor seems to drop from under your feet; the world loses its bearings. As Johnson’s documentary notes, the hydraulic jacks that shifted the sets emitted a groan identical to the sound of the teetering ship—the eeriest example of how craft imitated life and created art. You believe More’s stalwart Lightoller when he says he’ll never be sure again—of anything.
Michael Sragow, a writer and editor for the Baltimore Sun, is the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, and the editor of two volumes of James Agee’s work for the Library of America.