Not that I’d see it, or any other movie, in converted 3D, but I love Titanic (1997). It was however hardly the first word on the disaster, whose centenary is marked today. Dave Kehr recently noted that barely had the ship touched bottom in 1912 when survivor Dorothy Gibson co-wrote and starred in the one-reel Saved from the Titanic, and the retellings–including an oddball German propaganda piece in 1943, a glossy Hollywood production in 1953 with Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Wagner, various TV movies, and an unmemorable if Tony-winning Broadway musical–have continued in the wake of James Cameron’s Oscar winner. A new one, from Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes, concludes tonight on ABC. You probably know the ending.
My high school English teacher, Charles Haas, is the co-author of five books related to the sinking and co-founder of the Titanic International Society. When I was a student he served as an adviser to 1980′s Raise the Titanic. I doubt the filmmakers used much of what he imparted–save for John Barry’s score it’s pretty terrible, squeezing the pulp from Clive Cussler’s ripping yarn–but in the years since he’s been to the wreck twice (awesome) and as I recall appeared in Cameron’s IMAX documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). His touchstone was Walter Lord’s enthralling history of the disaster, A Night to Remember (1955), which we read–happily–in class. (John McPhee and Robert Caro are just two great nonfiction writers said to have been inspired by Lord’s nimble prose, which was itself encouraged by the surprise success of the 1953 movie.)
Mr. Haas must have screened the 1958 film version for us. I was already steeped in it, me and my dad having watched it numerous times on Channel 9′s “Million Dollar Movie” in New York. It was only in 1994, when the Criterion Collection released it on laserdisc, that I realized it was a million dollar movie–astonishing, given sweep and scope that suggest a film several times more expensive. (Apparently some footage from the German film was recycled for frugality’s sake, though you’d never know it.) Cameron’s film works in big, broad strokes; this British-produced docudrama, adapted by the spy novelist Eric Ambler and filmed austerely in black and white, is, like the book, studded with small, memorable moments–the steerage passengers breaking into the dining room and being momentarily overcome by its opulence (“first class!”); a woman retrieving her “lucky pig” from her cabin and leaving her precious jewels behind; a father murmuring “goodbye, my sweet son” to the sleeping boy he is unlikely to see again. And that rocking horse, as potent a symbol as the “heart of the ocean” in the blockbuster.
Roy Ward Baker, who directed Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), the fine 3D thriller Inferno (1953), and, later, Hammer’s sci-fi masterpiece Quatermass and the Pit (1967), steers a complicated production tastefully, but remorselessly. Like Cameron’s film the ship sinks in something like real time; unlike the odyssey of Leo and Kate, the iceberg hits roughly 35 minutes in. Dispensing with an overarching plot the movie focuses on interweaved vignettes drawn from throughout the social strata onboard, and the star, the sturdy Kenneth More as the steadying second officer Lightoller, doesn’t come into focus until the history requires him. (Familiar faces include future sleuths David McCallum, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS, and Honor Blackman, of The Avengers and Goldfinger.) Produced by Titanic buff William MacQuitty, A Night to Remember is a perfect distillation of the book.
MacQuitty’s behind-the-scenes footage appears in an hour-long making of included among the supplements. Additional extras include audio commentary by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, author and illustrator of “Titanic”: An Illustrated History; an archival interview with survivor Eva Hart and additional survivor interviews culled from a Swedish TV show produced for the 50th anniversary of the sinking; the film’s trailer, and, updating the package, a 2006 BBC documentary about the villain of the story, the iceberg. The film itself looks and sounds ship-shape on Blu-ray, a vast improvement over the LD and an older, non-anamorphic DVD that has been replaced by a reissue. (Not to mention the attached YouTube trailer.)
By hewing closely to the facts as they were known before the wreck was located in 1985 (it was only then that it was proven that the Titanic split in two as it sank), A Night to Remember captures, more than any other version, the inexorability of the mistakes, errors of judgment, and human foible that doomed 1,500 that cold, clear night in April a century ago. The Blu-ray is a worthy commemoration.