Based on the 1955 bestseller by Walter Lord, Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 British-made docudrama A Night to Remember remains the clearest, most honorable cinematic depiction of the Titanic disaster, easily eclipsing the earlier 1953 Hollywood melodrama Titanic as well as the much later blockbuster of that same name by James Cameron.
Though it omits the striking fact, vividly captured in Cameron’s film, of the ship breaking in two as it floods with water (an event disputed by eyewitnesses but confirmed in 1985), A Night to Remember is much clearer than Cameron’s film about why this supposedly “unsinkable” ship sank, and why the bulkheads were thought to be high enough but weren’t.
A lucid exchange between Capt. Smith (Laurence Naismith) and ship’s designer Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) over the ship’s plans explains what Cameron’s vivid but dramatically gratuitous opening-act CGI “post mortem” doesn’t. The bulkheads did extend above sea level, and would have contained inflooding sea water in separate compartments, allowing the ship to continue to float.
But when five forward compartments flooded at the same time, the weight of the water, while not enough to sink the ship, was enough to tip it forward far enough for the water to begin spilling over the bulkheads from one compartment to the next. The result was like filling an ice cube tray by tipping it as water runs into one end. Had Andrews designed the bulkheads to run to the top of the compartments, Titanic would have been saved.
You can see it on Andrews’ face as he examines the plans he knows so well. “She’s going to sink, Captain,” he says.
“She can’t sink,” Smith objects. “She’s unsinkable.”
But Andrews, shaking his head as he stars at the plans, counters simply, “She can’t float.” (It’s a better line than the one in Cameron’s Titanic: “She’s made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can.”)
A Night to Remember also highlights the indelible drama, omitted from Cameron’s film, of two other ships on the ocean that night: not just the Carpathia, making full steam for the foundering Titanic but tragically too far away, but also the Californian, stopped for the night a mere ten miles away, actually within eyesight of the sinking vessel.
Though the Californian’s officers saw the Titanic’s distress rockets and witnessed the lights going out, these signs were disastrously misinterpreted. If only the Californian’s radios hadn’t been shut off for the night…
In Cameron’s other film about the Titanic, the undersea documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, Titanic actor Bill Paxton comments, “Titanic is like a stage where God says to you, ‘You have two hours to play out the rest of your life. What will you be? Will you be a hero? Will you be a coward?’ ”
Both heroism and cowardice were very much in evidence in the Titanic disaster; such crises bring out both the best and the worst in human nature. Cameron’s film, alas, highlights the cowardice and downplays the heroism. It's to A Night to Remember's credit that it makes plenty of room for both. It’s a classy depiction of how human beings in 1912 faced life and death in the fabled tragedy.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.