The only thing bigger than the box office for James Cameron’s Titanic, is the director’s ego – that and the bloated snooze fest which was Avatar. Honestly, the man needs a decent editor, because none of his films have any right to last longer than two hours. But enough about the undersea-adventurer, this weekend I watched the lovingly restored classic A Night to Remember, which was directed by Roy Ward Baker, in 1958, at Pinewood Studios.
Baker’s film – like the book it’s based upon – charts the ultimately doomed, maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. The film’s sophisticated narrative and plot were woven from actual testimonies from Titanic survivors, including the Titanic’s fourth officer, Joseph Boxhall, who was hired as a technical advisor. The director also secured access to the ship’s original blue-prints, which ensured the film’s grandly designed sets were as accurate as possible.
While the craftsmanship of the film’s sets is still evident, some of the SFXs have dated. If one was inclined, it would be easy to criticise these SFXs, which are reliant upon miniatures. But it’s important to remember that Baker had none of the technical wizardry which Cameron had at his disposable in 1997. However, on the whole, the SFXs hold up rather magnificently, the scenes on the lifeboats which depict the Titanic sinking are particularly iconic and act as a testament to the British film industry during the late 1950s.
Fortunately, Baker’s film isn’t reliant upon tawdry dialogue or risible performances from Kate Winslet or Leonardo DiCaprio. In fact, A Night to Remember understands that its real star is the ship and its mythos itself, and therefore Baker weaves a narrative based upon facts, with multiple characters and strands. Baker does so with relative ease, not once is the narrative muddled or confused. The film’s most natural protagonist is Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, played by Kenneth More, but fortunately he never has to suffer the indignity of a corny, romantic plot device.
The 1958 film looks beautiful being projected and it’s far better to see this on the big screen, rather than re-watching it on DVD or on TV, on a wet bank holiday Monday. It is a film which demonstrates the once majestic British film industry. A Night to Remember might not be the technical marvel that Cameron’s Titanic is, but Roy Ward Baker’s film far surpasses Cameron’s in almost every other way. And let’s not forget, neither does it feature the undead warblings from the Canadian banshee, Celine Dion. Now, surely that alone secures its status as the definitive Titanic film.