MOVIE REVIEW: A Night to Remember (1958, UK)

Well, the movie is sixty years old, and it’s about something that happened four decades earlier. But just in case there’s someone out there who, no matter how improbably, has never heard of the Titanic….

Well, aside from wondering how old something has to be before you can’t “spoil” it anymore, should it really matter? By this time, everyone should know that in Citizen Kane, “Rosebud” is the sled. Likewise, we all know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, so the “big reveal” in The Empire Strikes Back isn’t a surprise anymore. Knowing these things do not make the movies any less, nor do they take away your enjoyment.

It’s not the plot twist or the answer to the puzzle, it’s how the story is told along the way.

So, yes, even though we all know the Titanic swiped an iceberg, tearing a fatal gash in her side, etc., etc., it’s the drama of her final hours that’s the subject of this movie.

It’s a screen adaptation of Walter Lord’s book of the same title, which was built on the accounts of survivors. Our main character is 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), the senior surviving deck officer. A few other characters in the jam-packed cast are named, but most aren’t. It isn’t necessary; the story is not really much more than a collection of vignettes of events on the ship as she sank.

There is one romantic sub-plot, but it’s not necessary to the film at all. Perhaps there was such a love story in reality; on a ship with hundreds and hundreds of passengers, it’s within reason. But it’s not contrived or hokey. No nonsense about love across class lines or some such vomit-inducing garbage.

Since quite a few of the survivors helped with the production, it’s about as accurate a depiction as one can hope for. Yes, they don’t show the ship breaking in half, but in 1958 that wasn’t known for certain. If you know your Titanic Trivia, you’ll spot “The Unsinkable” Molly Brown getting the women in a lifeboat to row , Benjamin Guggenheim prepared to die as a gentleman, and others, I’m sure.

Given that we all know how it plays out, what is there to see in A Night to Remember? There are many ingredients to a successful movie. Here, the key element is pacing.

There’s little time wasted to get to the ‘action”; the iceberg is struck at the 30 minute mark (just about a quarter of the way in). Then the tension slowly and steadily mounts as the extent of the damage becomes known, and the ship’s inevitable fate becomes clear. Director Roy Ward Baker keeps things moving at an inexorable pace; each little vignette adding bit by bit to the tragedy without overwhelming you. Decades of distance from the original, when you know how it all turned out, helps keep it from being too much to bear.

There’s a good deal to learn from watching A Night to Remember, not the least of which is seeing how great history, in the hands of a capable director, does not need any contrivances or artifice to be a great movie.

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