Nevertheless A Night to Remember (1958) offers another approach to the Titanic story, one largely devoid of fictional elements and melodrama. It is, in fact, one of the earliest known examples of what we now call a docudrama.
Cameron’s Titanic is a romantic melodrama set within a famous historical event.
A Night to Remember, on the other hand, is based on Walter Lord’s nonfiction book of the same name, and its makers take pride in sticking to the facts. (It is regarded by Titanic experts as the most accurate screen retelling of the tragedy.)
There are no melodramatic subplots, no grand shipboard romances. None of the characters – not even the second mate played by top-billed Kenneth More – takes precedence over the others.
Yes, the characters are thin (a criticism that can be leveled as well at most of the supporting roles in Titanic), but since the overall approach is more documentary than dramatic, that's not a great drawback.
The screenplay by famed British novelist Eric Ambler introduces numerous broad types: Irish emigrants bound for America, young newlyweds, an aristocratic couple and their children, and especially the Titanic’s crew members, who go about their duties with varying degrees of determination and dread.
Moreover there’s a tremendous cast of fine English actors: Honor Blackman (who a few years later would gain immortality as 007’s Pussy Galore), Laurence Naismith, David McCallum, and Alec McCowan, for starters. They make these sketchily written individuals seem remarkably substantial.
And unlike Cameron’s dialogue, which sounds too modern and slangy, Ambler’s lines are absolutely believable and very, very British.
While only the second half of the three-hour-plus Titanic is devoted to the post-iceberg sinking of the ship, nearly three-quarters of the two-hour A Night to Remember covers that time period.
Unlike Cameron, Roy Baker, the director of A Night to Remember (he spent most of his career making Hammer-type horror films), didn’t have the budget to indulge in an inch-by-inch re-creation of the luxury liner. His sets are generic and light on detail.
For many shots, models of the Titanic are employed, and the final sinking of the ship was created using mechanical effects. After all, this was four decades before computerized f/x.
As pure spectacle, then, A Night to Remember can’t hold a candle to Cameron’s movie.
On the other hand, the older movie’s aura of imminent disaster, fear, and panic is easily the equal of Titanic’s. And, interestingly enough, by being in black and white (employing some original newsreel footage of the real ship) it gives the impression that we’re watching the real thing rather than make-believe.
The two pictures share many things. Both have scenes in which steerage passengers are locked below decks until the first-class passengers escape. Both dramatize the confrontation between American millionaire Molly Brown, who wanted her lifeboat to return to save survivors, and a crewman who feared being swamped.
Both cut between rowdy Irish folk music played in steerage and the refined chamber music that serenaded the rich. Both films depict the ship’s designer quietly having a drink in the lounge as the water rises around him.
A Night to Remember is memorable for its many historic vignettes.
Upon learning of the ship’s fate, the chief electrician invites his crew to either pray or join him in a cup of tea – whichever will provide the most comfort.
And then there’s the cook, a favorite of Titanic buffs, who gets drunk during the sinking and steps off the ship at the last moment. Apparently he’s had enough antifreeze to keep him alive in the icy water and so survives.
A Night to Remember repeatedly returns to this figure as he sits in his cabin emptying a fifth of whiskey, then careens around the doomed ship. (He’s played by George Rose, who went on to become a Broadway musical comedy star in productions like Pirates of Penzance.)
Unmentioned in Titanic is that while the ship was sinking, another vessel – the Californian – was only a few miles away and could easily have rescued most of the Titanic's passengers. Its crew could see the lights of the stricken liner.
But the Californian’s wireless operator had switched off his equipment and never received Titanic’s distress calls. This incredible irony forms a major subplot in A Night to Remember.
So which film is better? That depends on what you’re looking for. Titanic gives us romance. A Night to Remember deals mostly in facts.
Take your pick.
Other films in the series “Women and Children First”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 2: Titanic (1953) Not rated
- April 9: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) Not rated
- April 16: Raise the Titanic (1980) Rated PG
- April 23: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) Rated G
- April 30: A Night to Remember (1958) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.