classic film

Back to Titanic: A Night to Remember

Titanic at Queenstown Ireland

The RMS Titanic sails into Queenstown, Ireland before heading out to sea

On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on her ill-fated maiden voyage to New York.  Built in Belfast by Harland and Wolff, Titanic and her sister ships the RMS Olympic and HMHS Britannic were the pride and joy of Liverpool’s White Star Line shipping company headed by J. Bruce Ismay and American financial tycoon J.P. Morgan. The ships were designed to be the last word in luxury transatlantic travel, and were in fierce competition with Cunard, based in Southampton (Cunard’s Lusitania was famously torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat during the First World War). Not only was Titanic the largest and fastest passenger liner at sea, she was hailed as “unsinkable” — a towering metaphor for power and optimism during the industrial age.

More famous than the ship itself was the sad fate that befell it. In the late hours of April 14, 1912, Titanic struck an iceberg off the freezing coast of Newfoundland and sank, killing over 1500 people in one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century.  Like the Hindenburg, the Titanic has remained a source of morbid fascination for the past century. I, myself, have been interested in the story of the ship since I was a child. I remember doing a school project and flipping through an old copy of the issue of National Geographic that detailed Robert Ballard’s expedition to the bottom of the Atlantic and his discovery of the wreckage. For my 23rd birthday, a few of my close friends and I went to Las Vegas, where an exhibition of Titanic artifacts had been raised from the seabed and put on display in at the Tropicana. It evoked similar feelings to experiencing an exhibit about the Holocaust, for example. The reason for divers plundering the ship’s remains and displaying what they’ve found is understandable. The Titanic is rapidly disintigrating and will soon be nothing but a pile of rust at the bottom of the sea.

A Night to Remember

Tucker McGuire as the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown

Over the past 100 years, Titanic has proven profitable source material for filmmakers. Just ask James Cameron, who basically took my entire life’s savings when I was 14. Although Cameron’s 1997 film has been the biggest moneymaker and is still fresh in everyone’s memories, especially now that it’s been re-released in cinemas in 3-D to mark Titanic’s centenary, Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 classic A Night to Remember is considered by many serious film folk to be the “best”. Drawing largely from Walter Lord’s book of the same title based on the official Titanic inquest, A Night to Remember has been praised for its historical accuracy, keeping the focus on the reality of the disaster rather than the mythology.

A Night to Remember

“I take it that you and I might be in the same boat later?” Robbie Lucas (John Merivale) and Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) stoically accept their fate

Baker’s film recalls the documentary realism movement that defined British cinema during the war years. It features wonderful performances by Kenneth More, John Merivale, Anthony Bushell, Honor Blackman and Michael Goodliffe, among others. The ship itself is the main character, and we see the human error that caused her demise from all angles. But what sets it apart from Hollywood renderings of the same story is its restraint.  It lacks the melodrama that permeates Cameron’s film and lets the horror of the tragedy speak for itself. No need for extra gimmickry to tug at audience’s heartstrings.

Titanic in A Night to Remember

Full steam ahead

There are many similarities between Baker’s and Cameron’s films, aside from the obvious part about the sinking boat. The latter not only uses a good chunk of the dialog featured in A Night to Remember, but contains many very similar shots.  A minor but interesting difference worth noting is that A Night to Remember was filmed prior to Ballard’s discovery, so the ship is depicted sinking in-tact. Now we know it split in half while going down, as shown in Cameron’s film. In the end, however, comparing A Night to Remember and Cameron’s Titanic is as pointless as comparing Ken Burns’ The Civil War and Gone with the Wind. One presents historical facts as they were. The other is a fictional story set against a real historical backdrop. Which film floats your boat (pardon the pun) will depend on your keenness for realism vs romance. But A Night To Remember is an exceptional film, and a worthy one to watch to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s tragic voyage.

Rating: A


Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (14)

  1. Great article, Kendra! I saw Titanic 3D this past Thursday. It’s probably the first time I’d seen the thing from beginning to end since the DVD came out in the late 90s. Back then I didn’t realize how laughable some of the film’s dialgoue is, but I was equally spellbound and captivated15 years later. I’ve never seen “A Night to Remember”, but TCM is showing it this Saturday, so I’ll watch it then. I watched the 1953 “Titanic” with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb this past weekend. It was alright entertainment, but I doubt I’d rush out and see it again. I’ve also been watching the British mini-series which is like “Downton Abbey” at sea (same writer, but not nearly as enthralling.)

    I’ve also been watching a lot of the Titanic specials on the National Geographic channel. I’m such a nerd! lol

    1. Yeah, Cameron can’t write dialogue for beans. It’s a scientific fact! Most of the dialogue in A Night to Remember, which Cameron later used in his own film, is taken from Walter Lord’s book. Only Cameron credited himself for the entire screenplay.

      I’d definitely recommend A Night to Remember. I’ve never seen the Stanwyck version but have heard its not very good.

      Don’t worry, I used to watch NatGeo and all those channels all the time! Is it Shark Week yet? 😉

      1. Personally I I find that one should NOT watch the Stanwyck version expecting Titanic to be a huge part of it as it’s not really what they were aiming for…its really about the characters and their relationships to eachother, with Titanic being the backdrop…as a melodrama it’s a pretty good film with strong performances, I think. I may be a little biased here, though lol (= Stanwyck fan!)

        Great post, Kendra!

    1. Actually, Barbara Stanwyck was in a 1953 Hollywood film called “Titanic”, which is different all together from “A Night to Remember” 🙂

  2. I didn’t now about “a night to remember”… I will definitely look for it… And Jack Merivale is in it… I have never seen him “live” ;-)… Only on pictures with his dear Vivien…
    I was often close to watch “Titanic” with Barbara Stanwyck, but finally that didn’t happen… And now that I know that Barb called Vivien a “whore”, I don’t know !!!!!!!
    Just kidding… I like Barbara Stanwyck, and if she had something to settle with Vivien that’s none of my business :-)))

    As for Cameron’s Titanic, I watched it twice in theaters in 1997 and loved it… But somehow I hesitate to see it again now… I don’t like 3D when it is added to a non-3D movie… But that’s how it works… GWTW was “converted” in panoramic size and stereophonic sound in the late 50’s… By chance, today we can watch it as it was filmed in 1939.

    1. It’s a very good film on the whole and I’d definitely recommend it. Jack Merivale was never a star in any sense and always seemed to play bit parts in films. But what little screen time he had in this one was well-spent. He has a voice reminiscent of Roger Livesey.

      I’ll go see Cameron’s film once more (I saw it 9 times in the cinema when I was 14–obsessed) but I know its not as good as I remembered it.

      1. You may be surprised 😉 !
        Anyway I wish you will enjoy it, maybe differently that when you were 14 ! I was 33 when it was released and I liked it a lot… But now my fear is that maybe the special effects did not age as well as Kate Winslet ;-))
        But then again, it can add a certain charm to the movie ( like those old Ray stop-motion animated movies).
        I may go and see it again too !

  3. I have not seen the classic version of the movie Titanic. I am looking forward on watching it especially that the latest one had huge impact on me. I just love how it was made, and how it managed to show me what the passengers might have been feeling during the tragedy. I hope you can visit me at derivatives sometimes. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I have yet to see this Titanic film, but from what you say it is definitely on my “to see” list. I am also curious to see John Merivale in it… I don’t think I’ve seen anything with him in it yet.

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