“Bill, it's small-screen, black and white, you have no stars, and it's just another shipwreck.” With these words, John Davies (production head for the Rank Organisation), dismissed producer William MacQuitty's idea for a film version of Walter Lord's best-selling book on the Titanic disaster. Fortunately, MacQuitty's diplomacy and enthusiasm won through, and the result was both the most historically accurate version of the story and a thought-provoking study of human nature.
With the construction of a full-size section of the ship at Pinewood studios, major special effects input, and location work in Scotland and around London, 'A Night to Remember' was a large-scale project. Contemporary box-office was fairly cool, but time has made its qualities more apparent.
The first of these is the script by Eric Ambler. By condensing several historic characters (notably, in Kenneth More's Second Officer Lightoller), the screenplay gives us enough people to become involved with, without getting lost. Ambler had made his name as a thriller writer and despite our inevitable knowledge of the story, the script manages to be suspenseful and exciting as it cuts between the increasing danger on the Titanic and the desperate rescue efforts of the Carpathia. At the same time, there is the frustration of seeing another ship, ten miles from the tragedy, making little or no effort to help. James Cameron, with the technical resources at his disposal, should have done wonders with this material, but he decided a juvenile romance was more 'meaningful to modern audiences' (ie the teen market). Ambler even makes room for some comic relief as a baker downs the best part of a bottle of Scotch (and ends up a survivor).
At first sight, Roy Baker's direction seems non-existent. In a way, however, this is its greatest quality. Baker lets the story tell itself without hammering home a message. People just do what they do (or, rather, what they did in 1912). Some of the best scenes involve complex changes to the viewer's centre of attention, with detailed background action. Note how the camera follows an aristocratic couple into the ship's restaurant, then focuses on another table in the foreground, where 'unsinkable' Molly Brown tells of her rise to wealth. The action at the first couple's table continues to flow, with the arrival of a waiter, then the wine waiter, while other people are seated and served elsewhere in the room. The scene doesn't look staged, it looks like the natural working of an everyday setting.
Baker's work reaches its height in the final scenes where crowds of people face imminent death. The editing (by Sidney Hayers, soon to be a useful director himself) becomes increasingly rapid and is brilliantly cut to William Alwyn's music which (having been quite muted since the opening credits) swells, with taut strings and strident brass finally evolving into the melody of the hymn played earlier by the ship's orchestra to make a truly moving and involving climax as the ship disappears under the sea.
The sinking scenes, of course, required considerable special effects. These are the film's Achilles heel, as now we expect so much more bang for our buck. The models are obviously models, the back-projection is obviously back-projection. In fact, the effects work better on the big screen, and it is worth trying to see A Night to Remember at a film theatre rather than on DVD (however large your plasma screen). Scenes on board ship are superb. The sets are extremely accurate, and look far more expensive than they probably were (the whole film only cost around £1m). The sets even played their part in creating atmosphere: the creaking of the ship tearing herself apart is the sound of the sets being raised on hydraulics to create tilting decks.
The script has over 200 speaking parts (many, admittedly, one-liners) so the acting is really an ensemble effort. Nevertheless, Kenneth More provides a solid core around whom events take place and an heroic figure for us to identify with. The resemblance of some actors to their historic models is remarkable (notably Laurence Naismith's captain, which even amazed Captain Smith's daughter). The acting is sincere, played with restraint, very British, and is in keeping with the mood of the film.
“Britishness” is, in fact, probably A Night to Remember's chief characteristic. When it was made, the Empire was fading into the Commonwealth, and the Suez Crisis had shown just how Britain's 'world power' status had dwindled. Films such as A Night to Remember showed Britons they had admirable qualities (courage, self-control, selflessness, resourcefulness and humour), even if their scope for action was diminished.
The style of the film also reflects the British heritage of documentary film-making (particularly from the war years). Producer, writer and director wanted to create something honest and truthful which would stand the test of time. Appreciation of the film over 50 years after it was made shows how well they succeeded.