Many Titanic enthusiasts were first drawn to Titanic by the 1958 movie A Night To Remember. The movie was based on Walter Lord’s historical book of the same name. Another movie, Titanic (1953), starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, was also around as well. The 1953 movie was fiction but placed the characters on the doomed ship. Of the two though, A Night To Remember is a more faithful retelling of the tragic story of what happened in 1912.
Cinema rarely presents history the way it happened. Writers, directors, producers like to embellish or change things that look good on screen. Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day recounts the events prior to and on 6 June 1944. The movie version does alter a few things, namely the landing on Omaha Beach. Anyone who has read the accounts, watched documentaries, or seen Saving Private Ryan realizes how bloody awful it was. From the moment the landing craft got near, they came under withering German fire. Many were killed in the landing craft, some drowned in the water due the heavy weight of their gear, many junior officers were dead moments upon arrival leaving it up to the sergeants and corporals to lead their decimated units. So it is no surprise that even a near faithful treatment of Titanic would take some dramatic license.
A Night To Remember opens up with a christening, something Harland & Wolff never did. They did have a ceremony where guests where invited to see the new ship slide into the water. The early scene with Lightoller and his wife on the train likely did not happen either. Lightoller is chastised by an older couple when reading aloud a soap advertisement (an actual one for Vinola) and making fun of it. They assumed he was critical of the ship but are forgiving when he is revealed as an officer aboard the ship and making fun of the advertising. We see different types of people from the very rich to the poor setting out on their journey to Titanic. We get a sense right away of the very stark differences in class that existed in that time. The poorest go with what they had and could carry while the rich came with servants and lots of baggage. Most of the characters used in the movie are based on real people and there are some composites as well.
We also see the stark differences between two other ships and captains-Captain Stanley Lord of Californian and Captain Arthur Rostron of Carpathia. Both of these ships play a critical role in the Titanic story. When Rostron is informed of the emergency message from Titanic, he quickly springs into action. Lord, since the radio operator is off-duty has no idea what is happening to Titanic and does not investigate when rockets are sighted. We also see the various characters react to the sinking and the acts of sacrifice that take place. Titanic captain Edward J. Smith appears decisive unlike what was learned later at the hearings. In fact, he had to be asked what to do by many of the officers instead of barking out orders as the movie depicts. Most likely the fact that many were going to die was something that weighed heavily on his mind.
Keen observers will notice some actors that became well known later. Honor Blackman, who was the first female accomplice on The Avengers and Pussy Galore on Goldfinger is in the movie as Mrs. Lucas. Those who remember Man From Uncle or like the character of Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS will notice David McCallum as assistant wireless officer Harold Bride. Bernard Fox, whose Colonel Crittendon made live miserable for Colonel Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes, plays lookout Frederick Fleet (he was also in Cameron’s Titanic playing Colonel Archibald Gracie). Sean Connery plays a Titanic deck hand. Kenneth More, a well known British actor in the 1950’s, plays the role of Charles Lightoller. There are many others who will look familiar if you watched movies or television from this period.
The movie was done in black and white, but there may be copies out there in color. The Criterion Collection of this movie is the one to purchase or rent. Also this version has been digitally restored and some of the older copies are not that good. There are extras well worth considering if you plan to purchase. First the audio commentary by Titanic authors Don Lynch and Ken Marschall fills in a lot of detail as you watch the movie, often correcting what the movie does not depict correctly or adding lots of interesting details. A 60 minute documentary about the making of the movie and, perhaps even better, an archival interview with Titanic survivor Eva Hart.
I would encourage, if you can, to read the book by Walter Lord. The book is extremely well written and Lord had a knack for telling a good historical story. He wrote a sequel after Titanic was discovered in 1985 called The Night Lives On that deals with what was learned afterwards. He actually wrote a lot of history books. His one on Pearl Harbor attack (Day of Infamy) is still considered on the best in that area. His The Miracle of Dunkirk really nails what it was like to be trapped with Germans advancing on you with the only hope rescue from the sea. It also includes, for those who did not know, how Charles Lightoller (the same one from Titanic) became a hero rescuing soldiers and bringing them home to Britain. His book on the Battle of Midway (Incredible Victory)details how the battle came about. Some of his books may be available digitally.
So as you decide what to watch for the anniversary of Titanic’s sinking, consider the 1958 A Night To Remember. I think you will like it it. It will not have all the lush colors of Cameron’s Titanic, but it tells a story that will be worth the watch.