Retro Review: A Night To Remember (1958)

A compelling account of the true story of the sinking of The Titanic, in 1912. Made in black and white, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and starring Kenneth More, alongside a cast of stalwart character players. This was the disaster epic of the 1950s, and believe me when I tell you that it a far superior film to James Cameron’s lamentable, CGI-heavy version, ‘Titanic’, from 1997.

We start by seeing the lead up to the maiden voyage of the ill-fated passenger liner. The launching, followed by the massive amount of provisions needed for the passengers in all the different classes. The Second Officer (More) leaving to join his ship, a young couple just married, and departing to honeymoon on the new luxury liner. The man who designed and built it, going along to make sure it all works properly, and the wealthy owner of the White Star Line, insisting he just wants to be treated like an ‘ordinary passenger’.

The voyage begins well, with a stop in Ireland, where we join a group of poor emigrants, hoping for a better life working in the cities of America. Once the ship heads out into the North Atlantic, the action switches to other ships on similar routes, and reports of large amounts of ice. Meanwhile, life on board The Titanic is under way. First Class passengers enjoying fine dining, as they remark on how calm the journey is. Second Class passengers in comfortable rooms, attended by stewards, and the poorer passengers crowded together in Steerage, making the most of the excitement of the prospect of a new life, by dancing and singing.

The operators in the radio room (including a very young David McCallum) are inundated with telegraph messages being sent by their wealthy passengers. So much so, that the ice warnings from other ships in the area go unnoticed. The ship settles down for the night, with the Second Officer, the Captain, and others going off duty for some well-earned rest. Some passengers continue to play cards, or enjoy drinks in the Smoking Room, and down in Steerage, the young Irishmen cast their eyes over some pretty girls.

When the lookouts suddenly spot an iceberg dead ahead, the Deck Officer tries to turn the ship away, and reverses the engines. But as we all know, it is too late, and the massive ship glances along the side of the huge iceberg, receiving a 300 feet-long gash below the waterline. As the water starts to pour in, nobody panics. The ship is claimed to be unsinkable, after all. But the pumps cannot cope, and as the forward compartments begin to flood, it is only a matter of time before the bow will dip, allowing more water into the compartments behind. After consullting the ship’s builder on board, the Captain realises he has less than two hours before the liner will sink in the icy waters.

This is when the film really impresses. The stark realism of the evacuation into the boats is so well done, it feels like a documentary at times. A tragic air of calm is present, with the passengers thinking the evacuation of the women and children is all a fuss about nothing, and they will be out in the cold on the lifeboats, before returning later. The Officers arrange all this with typical British resolve, and perfect politeness. But when they discover that the nearest help is well over two hours away, they soon become aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The rigid class structure of Britain at the time is adhered to on the ship, even in the face of almost certain death. The ship only has lifeboats for 1,200 people, but there are over 2,200 on board. So the First Class passengers are first to be offered places in the boats, followed by the larger number of Second Class travellers. The people in Steerage are locked in by the crew, fearful that they will panic, and overwhelm the boats. As all this is going on, with the tension increasing despite the rigid formalities of the evacuation process, the orchestra plays soothing music on deck, as the ship’s officers are issued with pistols, in case of a general riot.

This film is not only bitingly realistic, it is also very moving. Individual stories are fitted in to the action, and we become invested in the fate of certain characters. Without the benefit of modern special effects, using water-filled sets, models, back projection, and lots of studio sets, they manage to make it completely convincing, and we always feel that we are in the Atlantic Ocean, rather than on a sound stage somewhere.

If you have only ever seen the much-lauded, star-packed film from 1997, I really do urge you to see this one.
It will give you a much better idea of what really happened on that terrible night.

50 thoughts on “Retro Review: A Night To Remember (1958)

  1. Great review, Pete – I saw that one so long ago that I need to revisit it some time. I’ve never seen the Cameron version despite the fact that I like both DiCaprio and Winslet. In fact, though for a while Cameron was like a demi-god in the movie industry, of all of the movies he directed, I really only liked the first two Terminator movies and True Lies…All the best, Elizabeth

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    1. I believe that Cameron overdid the CGI to saturation point in ‘Titanic’. This film is far more dignified. As for DiCaprio, my dislike of his ‘acting abilities’ is well-known on this blog. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

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        1. No I haven’t, Kim. I think people in Britain have had something of a ‘Titanic Overdose’, for as long as I can remember. It’s a big deal here, and rarely out of the news, for one reason or another. Strange but true. 🙂

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  2. I think I saw the first one way back when and so remember nothing much about it. The James Cameron one I did see, it was OK but all a bit HDR for me. What I did really enjoy was a 2-part docudrama shown on TV. Can’t remember what it was called or how long ago (can’t be that long as I can remember it 🤣) but it was the best thing on Titanic I’ve seen as yet.

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      1. Yes it is I think, I didn’t know any of the actors so it seemed more real for that and was so well done. I have seen a fair few documentaries on it and obviously the de.caprio one (that never stood a chance with you anyway for having him in it!! 🤣) but that one really brought it all home.

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  3. I was 14 years old when I first saw this in the theater Pete. It was the first time I had heard about Titanic and the film was indeed shocking to a kid who had never heard of it before and who knew nothing about English class structure. The film got me reading all about it.

    My wife and I saw the dreadful re=make in ’97 and I mentioned this film to her. I got a copy from the local rental store and we watched it at home. She too was overwhelmed by how good it was.

    They don’t make ’em like that anymore. Its a film every movie buff should see.

    Besties from Florida.

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  4. I would definitely like to see this, as I’ve seen stills from the film. As for James Cameron’s film, I do have it on DVD, and think it’s very well done. Due to the discovery of the actual ship, and subsequent studies of its structure, Cameron’s film is almost assuredly more accurate in its depiction of how the Titanic actually sank, compared to the 1958 film. Of course, Cameron’s film is a bit melodramatic, but I have no problem with that. I’m sure the human interactions, and the dialogue, in “A Night to Remember” are more convincing.

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    1. The ‘bow down’ sinking is the same, David. I hated the overblown sentimentality in Cameron’s film, as well as the totally unrealistic ‘class-mixing’ of DiCaprio and Winslet. That showed the director didn’t have the first clue about Britain in 1912, and needed a good history lesson. 🙂
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In Cameron’s film, the ship breaks in two, as it now has been determined actually happened. Yes, Cameron’s film is full of “overblown sentimentality,” and no doubt does not offer an accurate portrayal of British class structure, but it’s still very entertaining. “A Night to Remember” has a number of historical inaccuracies (according to Wikipedia), some of which were intentional for dramatic purposes, but it does apparently try to stick as closely to the facts as they were known in 1958. Cameron’s film is mostly fiction in terms of the story it tells.

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  5. I love the first half-hour or so of the 1997 film when the Titanic is getting ready to sail, etc, – you are really there – but then I usually turn it off. Apart from that I agree the Kenneth More film is better by far.

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