Not rated because it is a British film from 1958, but it involves the tragedy of the Titanic. It's about the deaths of many people who got on a ship that floated on hubris. While the brutality is pretty minimal, there are some really depressing moments as you think about people, including children, freezing to death. There is a frozen dead kid wrapped up in a blanket, mainly because it is clearly a dummy. Not rated.
DIRECTOR: Roy Ward Baker
You know, I almost had to write about Britney Spears today. I watched that documentary and then discovered that it is probably more of an episode of a series than a standalone film. It's not that I don't want to write about that movie. It's just that I get a freebie of not having to cross it off and delay A Night to Remember, an early entry in the Criterion Collection.
I don't know what it is about the Titanic that captivates us so much. I remember as a kid, we were in Florida and we passed a Titanic museum. This is Orlando, so the place was saturated with attempts to provide entertainment on the days that the kids weren't going to Disney. I remember thinking how much I wanted to learn about the Titanic before entering the museum and then, midway through, having to leave and not really caring. (These are half-memories and I don't remember why we had to leave.) I had only seen the James Cameron version of Titanic a few years ago and remember being completely underwhelmed. Seriously, people lost their minds for that movie. It's kind of amazing that James Cameron got all of the credit for bringing the majesty of the Titanic to the screen. Honestly, A Night to Remember does a pretty darned impressive job, especially considering that it was 1958 and it is potentially less gimmicky / definitely way shorter of a film.
I'm torn about something, though. A Night to Remember is both genius and kind of dull for the same reason. Instead of relying on historical fiction to tell about the Titanic disaster, like with Jack and Rose, A Night to Remember doesn't really have a protagonist. The closest person we get to as a protagonist is Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. He doesn't really have an arc in the story. Like most disaster stories, it becomes entirely about survival. I claim that he might be the closest thing to a lead in this movie because he is the first person that the audience meets before the Titanic ever leaves dock. But A Night to Remember really allows the story to be told from just the experience of being on the ship. Most of the characters, even the ones who have repeated scenes, often aren't addressed by name. I couldn't tell you which characters are based on real people and who is straight up fictionalized because we, as the audience, don't really have time to spend with any of these people.
So what happens is that the movie becomes about mood. Without a grounded character who serves as our avatar, we watch the film with a sense of suspense. We know that the story is going to end with the boat going down. We know that the majority of the people on the boat die. This is such a famous story that there is no getting around what is supposed to happen. So what it ends up being is trying to figure out 1) who screwed this all up and 2) do these people deserve death? That's really dark and I'm ashamed of myself for writing this. But there's this really unique feeling that you get where you divorce the real life tragedy of what happened and the narrative film that I ended up watching. Because some of these people come across as real saints and the other ones are monsters. There are very few people in this movie who end up being moral grey areas. The movie thrives on that juxtaposition. We keep seeing these people who are absolutely the worst and then we find others who are completely aware that they are sacrificing their own lives for other people. That's what we're watching for and gosh darned it if Baker doesn't want you to judge these folks.
What is truly haunting, though, is the commentary on humanity. Maybe we are a truly terrible species and Star Trek really got it wrong. The people who suck aren't all people who want to escape with the women and children. I, at least, get that. I mean, from the safety of my desk, I can claim that I know that I'll let my loved ones live without me. But then again, I'm not under the stress of my imminent death, so who am I to say anything. But it is the lack of listening to rules and being put out by minor inconveniences that really bother me. I yelled at a kid pretty hard today for continually sucking at wearing his mask in school. He kept doing it unconsciously, but I know that many people out there, especially around where I live, refuse to wear masks during a pandemic, despite the fact that it is endangering other people. In this one, it is people refusing to wear life vests. Who are we as a species, guys? How did civilization wreck us so much? There are people in the holds who are poor immigrants desperate to get out, and people are trying to protest wearing vests or getting into the boat with other people? Come on. I mean, I'm mad and I think I'm supposed to be mad after watching something like that.
I'm kind of shocked that this movie is so darned well made. Yeah, I'm probably not going to be obsessed with the Titanic anymore. And we don't get that major moment that you get in Titanic, where the ship splits in two. But there's very little that doesn't impress like the Cameron version does. Like, it had to be a model, right? It almost never feels like a model. Models on water tend to be rough when we watch them in film. The water never really moves right and there is something terribly artificial about the whole thing. But the Titanic in A Night to Remember never really feels all that off. It looks like it is a real ship that is going down. I know that Baker decided to intercut real news footage with his newly created footage, which you would think would only stress the flaws in the new stuff. But it never ever looks bad. Part of that probably comes from the fact that Criterion makes a neat looking Blu-Ray. But the other end of the scale involves the fact that this is a movie that was given quite a bit of attention and love. The early Criterion releases often make me question how these movies made it into the collection. But then there's A Night to Remember, which really does have a sense of scale. The early days of widescreen cinema really helps this film. There's just something epic about the whole thing.
I want to end on the title of the movie. 90% of me believes that the movie wanted to go for something ironic. Again, I was interested in the Titanic as a kid, mainly because there was always something Titanic related in Scholastic book fairs and I read those things fast. But was the phrase A Night to Remember something that was said by someone. I'm sure that I could look this up. But I do find the title somewhat haunting. We use "A Night to Remember" as something with a positive connotation. It involves celebration and success. And that's what the Titanic was before it sank. It was a giant party on a boat where we were celebrating the fact that we have built the Tower of Babel. Mankind had finally overcome the technological gap that allowed people to die at sea and we were thrust down to perdition for our hubris. (I think this is the second time I used the word "hubris" in this blog.) It is really scary, how all of this just kind of happened. This unsinkable ship sinks and sinks quite easily. And almost to spit in the face of science and technology, there were so many things that went wrong. I still don't know what happened to that ship that was only ten miles away, but it just feels like insult was added to injury.
I didn't like Titanic, but A Night to Remember has all the stuff I liked about Titanic. It doesn't seem like a small movie, especially considering that contemporary audiences probably only associate the sinking of this massive ship with the film involving not-letting-go. I can see why this is one of those movies that has entered the cinematic canon. Yeah, there is no central story and it almost just feels like a historical recreation, but I don't mind that. It has genuine vulnerability and tells a compelling tale.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.