Thursday, April 5, 2012
A Night to Remember
Starring: Kenneth More, Michael Goodliffe, Frank Lawton, Richard Leech, David McCallum
By Alan Bacchus
Timed with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, not to mention the 3D version of James Cameron’s Titanic, is The Criterion Collection edition of the glorious version of the Titanic story. This is a must-see picture, a little-discussed epic masterpiece astonishing in its production value and moving emotional power.
The James Cameron version is no doubt a massive spectacle, which, however corny at times, delivers the drama of the event on every level. The same can be said of Roy Ward Baker’s British film, made 40 years earlier. Cameron has never been shy to borrow, cheat or steal from films of the past. Terminator successfully reworked some of the time travel cleverness of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. His Aliens film, though not cinematically linked, certainly has a reverent use of Robert A. Heinlein story elements. And True Lies definitely gave credit to the 1991 French film, La Totale!
There’s no doubt Cameron took influence from Baker’s film, resorting to blatant theft in numerous scenes that are choreographed and shot exactly the same as Baker’s. This, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery.
Baker begins his film by introducing a number of his characters kissing their loved ones goodbye before their short-lived journey aboard the famed ill-fated boat. It doesn’t take long before we’re on the boat sailing off into the Atlantic. Baker expertly introduces a number of characters, many of which are the familiar roles from other Titanic adaptations - Edward Smith, the ship’s captain; William Murdoch, the first officer; Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line Chairman; Thomas Andrews, the ship builder; and Charles Lightoller (More), the second officer. The latter two serve as the de facto ‘heroes’ of the film, who fight the hardest to save the crew.
Baker hits all the well established events that lead up to the sinking, including the sighting of the iceberg, the response of the neighbouring ships, the Carpathia and the California, the quick acknowledgement of the engineer and the captain of the fate of the ship, the shamefully inadequate evacuation procedures of the crew and the frightening wait for rescue in the icy Atlantic waters after the sinking.
He expertly lays out all these events with procedural-like efficiency. They’re so good and effective, many of Baker’s scenes are carbon copied into Cameron’s. Like Cameron’s, the production design of the ship’s interior and exterior is impeccably recreated, and the use of a scale ship model in a studio water tank lends the same kind of invisible authenticity. Cameron directly lifts the scene when the band, dutifully playing through all the chaos of the evacuation, splits up to go their separate ways then is coaxed back together when one of the violinists stays to play on by himself.
Before Cameron, Baker plotted out a mutiny of sorts by the Irish steerage passengers, who break through the barred-in doors despite the protests of the ineffectual and naive crew members. The final moments for Andrews, the engineer who goes down with the ship but not before he takes the time to adjust the clock as a testament to his calm heroic demeanour, are as poignant as Cameron’s. And lastly, the disgraceful departure of White Star Line Chairman Bruce Ismay is duplicated shot-for-shot by Cameron with Ismay shamefully stepping into a lifeboat, witnessed by the judgemental eyes of the second officer. In both versions it becomes a touchstone moment for the cowardice of Ismay and the tragic irony of the whole affair.
What is certainly missing from Baker’s film is a love story, though not at the sacrifice of the tragic and deeply emotional individual stories of heroism and tragedy from the point of the varied crew members. The central through line in A Night to Remember is the scathing theme of class hierarchy and the stubbornness of the arrogant rich folks who believed the ship couldn’t sink. The tragically ironic story for the ages is made into a spectacle for the ages.
A Night to Remember is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.