A Night to Remember

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

20 October

RMS Olympic launched, 1910

On this day in 1910, the White Star liner RMS Olympic was launched. The lead ship of the company’s Olympic class of liner, she was built at Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and captained on her maiden voyage by Edward Smith. Smith was later captain of the Titanic, the Olympic’s sister ship, and her other sibling, Britannic.

Titanic sank on her maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg and Britannic hit a mine while working as a hospital ship during the First World War and sank also, taking 1,500 down to their deaths. Unlike her sister ships Olympic had a long seagoing career. Like them she was a lavish liner built on a truly spectacular scale. Even the third class accommodation was of a good standard when compared to what was on offer on other ships.

Olympic was sleek, fast and huge, the biggest ocean liner in the world until Titanic took her crown, and then after Titanic sank Olympic was the biggest again until the Queen Mary came along in 1934.

Much is made of Titanic’s early demise, with many seeing the disaster as a symbol of humanity’s hubris. But very little is said about an almost entirely identical ship that sailed the seas successfully until she was taken out of service in 1935.

The strange thing about Olympic is that she did nearly sink, on only her fifth voyage, in 1911, when she was hit by the British warship Hawke, which tore two large holes in her hull. The captain of Olympic at the time was Captain Edward Smith, later of Titanic.

Even stranger was the fate of Violet Jessop, a stewardess and nurse, who survived the Olympic collision in 1911, only to be transferred to Titanic, whose sinking she also survived, in 1912. In 1916 she was on Britannic when the liner hit the mine. She survived that too.

A Night to Remember (1958, dir: Roy Ward Baker)

Nearly 40 years before James Cameron sank his teeth into the story of Titanic, the Rank Organisation had made its own film about the events of the night the ship went down.

Roy Ward Baker, now more famous for his work on several Hammer horrors, plus TV shows such as The Avengers, The Saint and The Persuaders! (their exclamation mark not mine), was at the helm and the great thriller writer Eric Ambler was on screenplay duty, which is perhaps why what resulted was taut, efficient and didn’t waste any time.

The whole grisly night of 14-15 April 1912 is seen through the eyes of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, Kenneth More playing him in the bluff, confident, humane style that had made him Britain’s biggest homegrown star. Like Cameron’s film, A Night to Remember tells the story through its characters, competently spinning more than two handfuls of individual stories into a compelling whole.

Using survivor testimony as its source material (collated in Walter Lord’s non-fiction book of the same name), and taking a semi-documentary approach, A Night to Remember calmly and grimly stands back to watch how the nearby ship Californian did nothing to help, because the ship was “unsinkable”, and how crew and passengers were similarly unflapped by the rising waters. Until it was too late.

A tale of human weakness, great courage, awful cowardice and death on a large scale, the film was made for a relatively small budget and it’s only in some of the more obvious “it’s a model”, “that’s a tank” moments that you can tell.

Why Watch?

  • One of Kenneth More’s fine, humane “stiff upper lip” performances
  • A genuinely great film about the sinking of a great ship
  • Described by the New York Times in 1958 as “supremely awesome”
  • Look out for Sean Connery as an uncredited deck hand

A Night to Remember – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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