A moving piece of British storytelling reissued in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
With a commitment to documenting fine process that recalls both Melville and Fincher, Brit journeyman director Roy Ward Baker (who went on to make reams of 'kinky vampire' movies in the '70s) offers a forensic account of that fateful night in April 1912 when the Titanic plunged into the murky depths of the Atlantic.
Adapted from Walter Lord's famed historical account, A Night to Remember, the film is framed as a cautionary tale that attempts to explain how disaster arrived as a culmination of small factors. These ranged from the design of the ship, the slow reaction of passengers and staff as to the gravity of the situation and rudimentary technology that didn't allow the crew to properly advertise to the nearby SS Californian that they were in mortal danger.
It's a cold film, with none of the Vasaline-lensed canoodling that fugged up much of James Cameron's effects-driven behemoth, Titanic. While Kenneth More is arguably the star of the film, he's barely given more than ten minutes of screen time. In a (largely successful) attempt to glean a cross-section of society, Baker skips from character to character, giving them a quick line or moment on screen, then swiftly moving on.
His handling of the ensemble is masterful and the way he resists forging small vignettes for each character means you get all the feeling and none of the potential confusion. The film offers a masterclass in clear, crisp storytelling that is fashioned almost entirely through the editing.
Though the film was made on a rather modest budget (some of the lifeboat scenes were filmed in Ruislip Lido), you never feel any corners have been cut or that the production was limited in any way. The impressive panoramas of the vessel slowly submerging are nothing short of magnificent, while the interior shots of seawater sluicing into engine rooms and corridors are brutally effective.
But the film works best as a heartbreaking ode to human folly, where overreaching technological hubris came a-cropper in the face of overwhelming natural elements. By the latter stages, where society wives are blithely damning the second class passengers to their graves, the film reveals itself as an almost Marxist indictment of privilege, snobbery and suppression.
But this is first and foremost the story of a mishap that spiralled out of control and left 1,500 dead. And you'd be hard pressed not to choke a little when the band of musicians accept their watery fate and decide to die as they lived: with a song in their hearts.
Ripe for a revisit on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
An skilful and moving piece of British storytelling.
Cold and brutal – exactly how this tale should be told.