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.