Exclusively relying on eyewitness testimony of real events, personalities and even specific lines during the disaster, A Night to Remember tracks through the sinking of the Titanic, a naval catastrophe which, in 1912, saw 1500 people lose their lives.
It’s important to note that my reverence and respect for this film is partly born for a hatred of James Cameron’s 1997 version. It swept awards ceremonies and box-offices but at 3 hours long it remains limitlessly tedious, unforgivably manipulative and seemingly oblivious to the true terror of the event. Cameron’s work has always come across to me as exploitation of a tragedy to draw more genuine shock and sadness from its audience. I’m all for a manipulative work- one of cinema’s key ideas is manipulation- but taking a real life event and so shamelessly using and abusing it for personal gain is too much for me.
A Night to Remember’s transcendent devotion to realism and humility do even more to highlight the flaws and possible tainted morality in the more recent rendition: With director Roy Ward Baker taking a kitchen-sink approach- without ever slipping into colder waters. He maintains a calculated visual language thriving on little details: With little hints at icebergs and rolling tables sliding slightly off of balance; and along with this develops several stories without ever becoming too personal.
We are witness to the deaths of hundreds of people, Baker not drawing out evocative responses- but instead allowing them to flow organically through his detached directorial style. It’s surgically precise and yet manages to hit a profound dramatic sweep as the boat begins to sink. He doesn’t engineer a contrived pay-off from a bunch of intertwining stories, instead showing some people we know either die or survive during the disaster. It’s barely a ‘disaster film’, more akin to a documentary for the natural humanity Baker watches.
So strong are these little moments of intense intimacy with unknowns who are about to die that I burst into tears several times during the latter stages of the film, often with simple shots of people Baker had not given any prior backstory. It’s inarguably a work of huge skill, with incredible effects and excessive research devoted to simulating as believable a sinking as was cinematically possible- but the prevailing humanity of the piece is the fruit of these labors. I’ve never seen a fictional work with quite this much heft despite its distant style. It’s almost similar to Night & Fog for how the director simply shows us terrible things, without ever forcing us or even asking us to feel a certain way about them. It’s so powerful because the reaction is self-motivated- completely organic film-making.
A Night to Remember is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in a long time, even more commendable for the simplicity and dignity with which it allows our emotions to unfold. There is never any dramatic leering or operatic use of music and visuals to create a reaction. It’s all just there.