Titanic: ‘A Night to Remember’
When we were kids and there were good movies showing in the city, our parents would take us to watch these movies with them and they would explain to us what these were all about, after or even during the showing. We got a good dose of historical movies—World War II, gladiator and Bible movies mostly. One of the movies that still sticks in my mind is “A Night to Remember,” which was about the sinking of the Titanic while on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York. The movie was in glorious black and white.
In a day or so, it will be the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It sank on April 14-15, 1912, somewhere in the North Atlantic and it wasn’t until the 1990s that its remains were found and explored with the use of high-tech instruments. Discovery Channel will soon be showing a documentary on the Titanic’s discovery with no less than “Titanic” (1997) movie director James Cameron’s new underwater clips of the great wonder resting in the deep. A Titanic experience in Belfast (where the ship was built) is now a sold-out tourist attraction.
Some years ago, director Cameron did something similar, the “James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck,” a two-hour documentary on the deep-sea expedition to find the sunken dreaded World War II ship that was the “embodiment of Hitler’s huge ego.” I watched it and was so moved I later wrote a column piece on it. Yes, when I was a kid I also got to watch the war movie “Sink the Bismarck!” (Churchill’s immortal words).
What I distinctly remember of “A Night to Remember” (even before watching portions of it on YouTube) was someone playing the violin even while the luxury ship, with 2,200 on board, was sinking. And the brave captain. I remember my dad whispering with certainty in the darkened movie house that the captain will go down with the ship, that that is how it is. Well, it’s not that way anymore these days. Ship captains are sometimes the first to abandon ship.
On YouTube I searched for that violin scene that stuck to my childhood memory and I found not one violinist playing but several musicians playing different instruments—a violin, a cello, flutes-while the passengers were jumping into lifeboats or leaping straight into the icy waters. Maybe I should watch the whole thing again, because what I remember is the captain, alone in his den, playing the violin in the last moments. Or did my wild imagination create its own cinematic scene?
A book on movie reviews that I often consult gives “A Night to Remember” the highest five stars. The write-up: “Engrossing, brilliantly directed docudrama detailing the sinking of the luxury liner Titanic. Distinguished British cast underplays admirably, creating tight suspense even though the outcome is never in doubt. Based on the best-seller by Walter Lord.” The cast includes Kenneth More, David MacCallum, Laurence Naismith, Honor Blackman, Jill Dixon and Alec McCowen. It was directed by Roy Ward Baker.
So you see, before the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet and with the Celine Dion soundtrack, there was “A Night to Remember.”
Without Lord’s bestselling book which was published in 1955, the movies on that tragic night at sea might have been mostly fiction and with few true-to-life accounts. Lord’s book was based on his interviews with 63 (of the 705 survivors). The book also lists the crew and passengers in their respective decks. It is said that there were more survivors from the higher decks (first class) than from the lower decks.
What did the band players really play while the ship was going down? Lord writes: “The legend is, of course, that the band went down playing ’Nearer my God to Thee.’ Many survivors still insist this was so, and there is no reason to doubt their sincerity. Others maintain the band played only ragtime. One man says he clearly remembers the band in its last moments, and they were not playing at all. In this maze of conflicting evidence, Junior Wireless Operator Harold Bride’s story somehow stands out. He was a trained observer, meticulously accurate, and on board to the last. He clearly recalled that, as the Boat Deck dipped under, the band was playing the Episcopal hymn ‘Autumn.’”
In “A Night to Remember” the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee,” but not the familiar tune we hear in funerals. In the movie, survivors on lifeboats hearkened to the music as they sailed away and waited for rescue to come. It was a heart-tugging moment.
In his book’s intro, Lord describes the Titanic’s last moments:
“From the boats, people could be seen clinging to the Titanic like little swarms of bees. The great and the unknown tumbled together in a writhing heap as the bow plunged deeper and the stern rose higher. The strains of ‘Autumn’ were buried in a jumble of falling musicians and instruments. The lights went out, flashed on again, went out for good. A single kerosene lantern flickered high in the after mast.
“The Titanic was now perpendicular, her three dripping propellers glistening even in the darkness. Out in the boats, they could hardly believe their eyes. For over two hours they had watched, hoping against hope, as the Titanic sank lower and lower. When the water reached her red and green running lights, they knew the end was near… but nobody dreamed it would be like this—the unearthly din, the black hull hanging at 90 degrees, the Christmas card backdrop of brilliant stars.”
Ah, that “backdrop of brilliant stars.” Okay, now up the volume of “My Heart Will Go On.” Eat your popcorn, it is 2012 and you can go on watching—in black and white or in technicolor?
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