I've heard it said that if you don't care for James Cameron's Titanic, or rather if you say you don't like James Cameron's Titanic, because as we shall see the former is an impossibility, then the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that you are a liar. Because Titanic is "impeccably crafted." I think there's generally more to the argument, sometimes something to do with special effects and spectacle, but mostly focused on how impeccably crafted the whole thing is. But I don't like it. I don't. I find it a turgid sprawl of basic ideas poorly executed, at least up until the ship actually sinks, at which point the film does attain a level of tragic splendor. This occurs, interestingly enough, only when Cameron shifts focus away from his star-crossed lovers and spends some time with the nameless masses of passengers and crew as they slip and tumble into the Atlantic. Cameron's "Nearer My God to Thee" montage is very affecting, the single best part of the film. I just find it curious that out of a three hour film, the most concentrated bits of emotional payoff come from people the script had no reason to give names to. Whatever the creative foundation for these moments is, I've always felt it was a shame that Cameron couldn't have built his entire film on it.
Thankfully, someone already did. Roy Ward Baker and screenwriter Eric Ambler's A Night To Remember, which James Cameron has doubtlessly seen a billion times, and which Criterion is re-releasing today on Blu-Ray, is such a film, an almost clinical, though hardly cold, step-by-step dramatization of what led to this tragedy on April 14, 1912. It focuses on the pure history of the event, centering its story on Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) and Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), the designer and builder of the Titanic. Lightoller stands in for the businesslike heroism that is expected of the crew of a sinking ship, and many of my favorite shots in A Night to Remember are of crew life on the ship after it has started going down. Some of these have the air of a store closing down for good, rather than one of impending doom, which somehow makes it all the more chilling. Baker portrays the sinking of the Titanic as almost ridiculously slow -- slow enough that the passengers who don't fully understand their predicament find it easy to remain in denial until the water is at their shoes.
One of the best sequences in the film mirrors these shots, as Baker portrays the eerie quiet of the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. This being a film based on one of the defining events of the 20th century, you know what's coming, and our tension is heightened by seeing waiters cleaning up a dimmed dining room -- this is a store closing for the night, as opposed to for good -- and, for instance, the strange, slow zoom on a rocking horse, a shot I love perhaps beyond reason, or at least beyond easy definition. It has something to do with an object so easily set in motion shown in a moment of utter stillness.
If Lightoller represents businesslike heroism, Andrews represents businesslike despair. "She's going to sink," he tells Cpt. Rostron (a terrific Anthony Bushell), after laying out his case that the disaster is a "mathematical certainty." With nothing to be done to reverse things, Andrews settles into the task of saving as many lives as possible, resigned to, if not exactly comfortable with, the knowledge that his own life won't be among them. "Are you not even going to try?" a crewman asks Andrews, who is standing alone and blank in one of the ship's upper-class lounges, as the Titanic's begins sinking faster by the minute, and is met with an almost cold glance. Andrews's fate is, in his mind, as much of a mathematical certainty as that of his ship.
A Night to Remember (a title, obviously, taken from the Walter Lord book from which the film is adapted, and about as good a title for this story as I can imagine) has a grimness about its details that Cameron never matched. At his best, Cameron was occasionally able to depict the sadness, but he never managed the horror. Baker and Ambler manage it, and without fuss. As people struggle to survive in the freezing ocean, a man (George Rose's drunken baker) clings to the side of lifeboat until someone's death makes room for him to scramble aboard. Another man pulled from the waters implores Lightoller to save the child he is carrying, unaware that the child is already past saving. The simple shot of Lightoller glancing at the other men on the boat to indicate that the child is gone, but to say nothing to the man, ends with Lightoller placing the corpse back into the water, and a quick fade-out, as if Baker can't bear to linger on it.
A Night to Remember is a superb historical drama whose simplicity of style, when applied to such a big event, does honor to that event in a way that spectacle never can. It's perhaps bad form to use one film to beat up on another, but the truth is that Cameron's Titanic has always rankled me, especially when a corrective to his film was already made, forty years previously.