Eschewing the romance and melodrama of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997)—and for that matter the similar qualities of the 1953 Titanic—Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958) is the Titanic movie for those captivated by the actual event. While a little on the dry side, it’s easily the most accurate film on the subject.
British thriller novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler crafted his screenplay from Walter Lord’s meticulously researched book of the same title. Of course, certain facts—notably the ship breaking in two—were not available to Lord, and this can now be viewed as a downside to the film. But for its time, it was the last word in veracity—especially after the Nazi propaganda Titanic and the 1953 film. It is certainly the most sober-minded recreation of the disaster ever committed to film—something that makes it perhaps of greater interest to the historically minded than to the general moviegoer.
Yet, it would be a mistake to think that the film is devoid of drama. It isn’t. The grim tragedy that has held the world’s imagination for nearly a century sees to that, as does Roy Ward Baker’s solid direction. The characters—generally historical, but with the usual additions and composites to keep the drama going—are nicely sketched in. While it may have understandably displeased his then-living widow, the depiction of White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton) as a weak coward who managed to get off the ship creates one of the film’s most poignant tragedies in his guilt-ridden visage in the lifeboat.
Much has been written about the film’s inferiority to the special effects in Cameron’s film, but, frankly, I find this movie’s model work and reconstructions perfectly satisfying—and perhaps more suited to the tragedy of the actual event than the spectacle of the Cameron film. I admit my first exposure to the story was when the 1953 film aired on TV in the 1960s and my overriding feeling about it is pretty much my personal take on all the versions—I find the story just depressing as hell, and have never actually enjoyed any of the versions. But I do admire this one.