Last night I sat down to watch A Night to Remember, the 1958 adaptation of Walter Lord's influential book reconstructing the Titanic disaster. I'm not sure what I was expecting. I think I was expecting a somewhat cheesy movie owing to the technical limitations of 1950's film making, and by what we've come to expect in a post-Titanic (the James Cameron one) era. I couldn't have been more wrong.
On every level -- technical, dramatic, visual -- this movie is far superior to the 1997 film (as undeniably impressive as Cameron's achievement was) and rightly holds it's place as the best movie about the events of April 14, 1912. Because it's a British production with a British cast it has an emotional truthfulness in keeping with what we know about the passengers and crew. The scene where Thomas Andrews breaks the news to Captain Smith that the "unsinkable" ship is going down, and further, that there are lifeboats for only 1200 of the roughly 2200 passengers is devastatingly effective because it's so understatedly played (you can watch that scene here).
A Night to Remember conveys the fateful tragedies of that night without ever resorting to cheap melodrama. It also matter-of-factly portrays the nobility, and let it be said, the moral blindness of the chivalric code of the aristocrats that made up the ship's first class passengers. Their "women and children first" ethic was laudable, but not so laudable when we realize that didn't include the less fortunate women and children below decks in steerage class.
As the ship goes down the movie recreates the legend of "Nearer My God to Thee" being played by the ship's band. Whether this actually happened we'll never know. Some survivors later recalled that the last song was a tune called "Autumn".
Film critic Michael Sragow writes of this scene:
The moment is so emotionally complete that it’s hard to quibble. The hymn crowns a mortal adventure replete with strokes of valor from women as well as men, such as Mrs. Isidor Straus’s spurning a lifeboat so she can spend the short remainder of her life with her husband. This film, like Lord’s history, captures the final gasp of high honor in high society.
A Night to Remember is brilliant docudrama and a fitting tribute to the lives lost, and those forever changed, by an event that after a century still resonates in our collective consciousness.