A Night to Remember

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
You'd have to be living on Antarctica if you missed any of the media coverage a couple of weeks ago recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking. In anticipation of the grim milestone, James Cameron's 1997 movie Titanic was re-released in theaters--in 3D no less, because 1,500 people plunging into deathly icy water is even more entertaining if they appear to be popping out of the screen. But if you're looking for a more classic (and, according to some, more realistic) movie adaptation of the Titanic tragedy, I highly recommend seeing the 1958 British film A Night to Remember.

That is not to say that Titanic was a bad movie. It wasn't. It was just tainted by a sappy love story, phenomenally expensive computer special effects, and Cameron's ego. After my father watched Titanic, he wanted to rent A Night to Remember, so we did. The film was based on the best selling 1955 book by Walter Lord. Lord grew up fascinated by the Titanic story and interviewed dozens of survivors to hear their accounts of that fateful night first hand. His book wove together their stories in an overlapping narrative style, and was a huge success. It's still in print today.

The book was first adapted as a TV movie, presented by NBC in 1956 on Kraft Television Theater. It was said to be quite a lavish production, featuring over 30 sets and 3,000 gallons of water, but while viewing it on YouTube I quickly got bored by the canned acting and slow pace. The screen movie version is much more compelling.

A Night to Remember follows the typical Titanic timeline: the launch of the ship (the movie shows it being christened, which I understand didn't actually happen), the travelers getting ready for the voyage, the differences between the first and third class passengers, the warnings about the iceberg, the eventual collision, sinking and aftermath. The visual effects seem more than passable considering the movie was made in the late 50s. The sets were inspired by actual blueprints of the Titanic, and many of the water scenes were done in very cold water in the middle of the night at an open-air swimming bath in a London suburb.

I didn't shed any tears while watching Titanic, but I find A Night to Remember particularly moving and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because it didn't focus on any one character or their back story (except for Second Officer Charles Lightoller, as played by Kenneth More), but showed the devastation in general. It's more of a tribute to the people who died and their legacy rather than a showy spectacle. We see mass panic, people trampling over each other, and a couple killed when one of the ship's smokestacks falls on top of them. But one of the most heartwarming (and heart wrenching) scenes is when an old, grandfatherly type man finds a lost child looking for his mummy. He picks him up and continues to comfort him (and protect him from the crowd) as the ship sinks, promising him that they'll find his mother soon. This clip shows the final moments on board before the boat disappears forever:

I think what's most amazing is that the movie wasn't nominated for any Oscars. It did win a Golden Globe for the Samuel Goldwyn International Award. A Night to Remember became an inspiration to Cameron and is still considered one of the best depictions of the Titanic tragedy. There's no computerized effects or Leonardo DiCaprio, but I still find it chilling and compelling. 

As an aside, I read a local news columnist's rant about how some young people tweeted that didn't know that the Titanic was a real ship--they thought the story was just a movie(!) Either the American educational system truly is failing us, or kids today don't watch PBS anymore; they're much more fascinated by texting or video games.  

Have you seen the movie? Do you prefer it, Titanic, or another depiction of the tragedy?


  1. Hi Pam, I remember seeing "A Night To Remember" many years ago and enjoying it. It also starred Honor Blackman (of Pussy Galore - Goldfinger fame)and David McCallum. I was surprised that you didn't make mention of the Oscar winning 1953 US version "Titanic" starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner among others. You may wish to check out Barbra Stanwyck's reflections on the night they filmed the sinking scene on IMDb. Thanks for the article.

  2. I watched A Night to Remember every time it was on TV. Very well done for the time. The ship continues to fascinate me and many others for a variety of reasons. Our town also has a Titanic victim, Walter Douglas, who was coming back from Europe on a furniture shopping trip with his wife and maid. They were safe in a lifeboat. He stayed back. He is interred in his parent's vault here in Cedar Rapids. Know that.

  3. I remember seeing the scene of the boat sinking in this movie as a kid, and thought it seemed so realistic. Now.. I see a special effect in a movie, and just as I'm getting wowed.. I remember It's just a CGI effect.

    Nice article, I'm going to have to watch this movie again.

  4. I prefer the earlier film--and not just because "older is better" as many Boomers are often accused when discussing music and great films. Rather, the story is much more compelling: it's about the tragedy and not a ill-fated love affair. In the 90s film, the GC is the star. In the 50s film, it's the story of a compelling event that grips us still.

  5. Thanks for the film rec. This looks fantastic. I'm going to try to track down a copy.

  6. I think A Night To Remember is the best Titanic movie ever made but I still love James Cameron's Titanic. In fact, Cameron does not seem to have an ego in my opinion; there is no denying his respect for the ship and there is no denying his respect for those who died.


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