The tragic story of the Titanic has captivated imaginations for an entire century, with endless movies, books and documentaries chronicling its doomed maiden voyage. What is it that has remained so fascinating about this ship? Perhaps what remains past the stories of heroism, romance and technology, is the fact we were recently reminded with the re-release of James Cameron’s blockbuster, that this was once called “the ship of dreams” and in it, we saw reflected the hopes and illusions of the entire 20th century.
The magic, for lack of better words, of the Titanic is that each generation can reflect its greatest tragedies upon it. How impossible it would be today to think about the ship and not reflect on the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and how malignant forces castrated Western civilization by destroying one of its proudest achievements. The Twin Towers at the World Trade Center, just like the famous Irish-built ship, were wonders of human design and engineering; phallic structures that announced the beginning of new eras (one the arrival of a purely technological world, the other of unstoppable economic power) and succumbed so effortlessly but with traumatizing aplomb.
If the Titanic of 1997 closed the century with a dazzling display of what movies could make with computers and extraordinary budgets, and the Titanic of 1953 highlighted the power of movie stars who propelled historical fictions to the firmament of memorable melodramas, then the ship of dreams as seen in Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember is an angry, socialist piece about the unfairnesses that would strike British people in the years that came after the war.
This sense of economic doom is perceived in every frame of this docudrama—often praised as the greatest movie about the Titanic—because it forgoes all signs of traditional storytelling and turns its often glamorous subject into a representation of the working class’ shattered dreams. The fatidic iceberg in this particular account is both a literal force of nature and a symbol of how bourgeoisie arrogance had no problem in stepping over the needs of the lower classes when tragedy struck.
The film begins with a short introduction that inconspicuously lets us know that this ship, meant to be the adoration of the elite, was in fact a product of working-class hands. Instead of obsessing over the ship’s elegance and riches, the film stresses its efficiency and design (perhaps a sign of the detailed nature of the book which inspired the movie), and instead of focusing on the lives of rich passengers, the story is told from the perspective of second officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) who gives the audience a first rate account of the tragedy as seen by the people running the ship.
There’s almost no dramatic set-up before the ship hits the iceberg. and there’s even less tension within the interpersonal relations of those aboard. A Night to Remember speaks more about the bureaucratic inefficiencies that doomed the distress calls, about the social inequity so evident in the way third class passengers were treated, and it also reveals the utter and complete lack of relevance held so highly by officers who live and swear by following protocol. Even as it approaches its finalé, the film refuses to reduce itself to a mere morality tale, with each of the technical accomplishments evident throughout, becoming reminders that the film, like the ship, was a product of a time and precise space.
A Night to Remember is mesmerizing to watch because the camera approaches every element with no regard to cheap sentiment, it becomes a cold—but never frivolous—witness, only present to make us witnesses the ease with which “history” can be unmade. A large part of the plot devotes itself to wondering why other ships in the area failed to come help the sinking ship, but the movie doesn’t pass judgment, how could it when it’s sticking so judiciously to historical facts? Instead, we are led to use it as a point of reference to wonder on how the United States refused to enter WWII, or why do nations fail to aid each other with more efficiency.
Roy Ward Baker’s movie is about the Titanic, yes, but unlike other movies that specifically deal with the tragedy of its sinking, this one relies on docudrama to make an even more lasting impression. Instead of allowing us to wallow in self pity, it rouses us, leading us to look ahead and fight for our rights, never letting us forget.
This Blu-ray release commemorates the centennial of the Titanic sinking and might be one of the Criterion Collection’s best high definition releases. The movie itself looks astonishing, its cinematography attaining crispness and clarity that makes it feel more present. This edition also features several documentaries and bonus featurettes, the centerpiece being The Making of “A Night to Remember” an hour long behind-the-scenes look at the landmark film.
The most moving bonus is an interview with the now famous survivor Eva Hart who in her old age looks back at the tragedy and gives a chilling account of how she stayed alive during the tragedy. The way in which she talks of her parents will leave you broken-hearted.
There’s also a vintage Swedish documentary called En natt att minnas, which reminds us that the Titanic had passengers from all over the world. The news piece is a charming curio because it displays a journalistic sensibility completely unfamiliar in our continent. If you thought the Celine Dion Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” was grating, you’ll eat your words upon listening to the tribute song played at the end of this featurette.
Among the most fascinating documentaries to ever be added to a home release is The Iceberg that Sank the Titanic a BBC feature that discusses the history of icebergs and chronicles the “life” of the one that allegedly struck the ship. Not only does the documentary succeed in making us become fascinated by a gigantic piece of ice, it also serves as a timely reminder that global warming has been long in the making. Leave it to the wizards at Criterion to anthropomorphize a ship and the iceberg that sank it, while both entertaining and enlightening us.