A Night to Remember (1958 film)

A Night to Remember is a 1958 British drama film adaptation of Walter Lord's 1955 book, which recounts the final night of RMS Titanic. Adapted by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the film stars Kenneth More and features Michael Goodliffe, Laurence Naismith, Kenneth Griffith, David McCallum and Tucker McGuire. It was filmed in the United Kingdom and tells the story of the sinking, portraying the main incidents and players in a documentary-style fashion with considerable attention to detail.[2] The production team, supervised by producer William MacQuitty (who saw the original ship launched) used blueprints of the ship to create authentic sets, while Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall and ex-Cunard Commodore Harry Grattidge worked as technical advisors on the film. Its budget of £600,000 (£11,868,805 adjusted for inflation [2012]) was exceptional and made it the most expensive film ever made in Britain up to that time.[3]

A Night to Remember
original poster
Directed byRoy Ward Baker
Produced byWilliam MacQuitty
Screenplay byEric Ambler
Story byWalter Lord
StarringKenneth More
Music byWilliam Alwyn
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth
Distributed byThe Rank Organisation

(United Kingdom)

Paramount Pictures (United States)
Release date
  • 3 July 1958 (1958-07-03)
Running time
123 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The World Premiere was on Thursday, 3 July 1958 at the Odeon Leicester Square. Titanic survivor Elizabeth Dowdell attended the American premiere in New York on Tuesday 16 December 1958.[4] The film was a relative disappointment at the box office.[1] However, it received critical acclaim and won the 1959 "Samuel Goldwyn International Award" for the UK at the Golden Globe Awards.[5] The film is still widely regarded as "the definitive cinematic telling of the story."[6] Among the many films about the Titanic, A Night to Remember has long been regarded as the high point by Titanic historians and survivors alike for its accuracy, despite its modest production values, compared with the Oscar-winning film Titanic (1997).[7][8][7][9]


In 1912, the luxurious Titanic is the largest vessel afloat and is widely believed to be unsinkable. Passengers aboard for her maiden voyage are the cream of American and British society. Boarding are first class passengers Sir Richard and Lady Richard, second class passengers Mr. Clarke and Mrs. Clarke, a young newly wed couple, and steerage passengers Mr. Murphy, Mr. Gallagher and Mr. James Farrel. Second Officer Charles Lightoller is also readying for the voyage. On 10 April, Titanic sails out to sea. On 14 April, at sea, the ship receives a number of ice warnings from other steamers. Only a few of the messages are relayed to Captain Edward J. Smith, who orders a lookout, but does not slow the ship or consider changing course.

Late that night, the SS Californian spots float ice in the distance, and tries to send a message to the Titanic. On the Titanic, the steerage passengers enjoy their time at a party in Third Class where Murphy becomes attracted to a young Polish girl, and dances with her. In the ship's boiler room, Thomas Andrews, the ship's builder, finishes an inspection. In the wireless room, wireless operators Jack Phillips and Harold Sydney Bride are changing shifts. Phillips receives an ice warning, but when more messages arrive for him to send out, it is lost under them. On the Californian, field ice is spotted, and the ship stops, for it is too dangerous to proceed, and a message is sent to the Titanic. Because the Californian is so close, the message is very loud, and Phillips interrupts the message. Titanic's passengers begin to settle in for the night, while some, including Mr. Hoyle and Jay Yates stay up to gamble. Suddenly, the vessel collides with an iceberg. Captain Smith sends for Thomas Andrews who goes to inspect the damage. Andrews determines that the ship will sink within two hours, and it lacks sufficient lifeboat capacity for everyone on board.

A distress signal is sent out, and efforts begin to signal the Californian, visible on the horizon 10 miles away, but its radio operator is off duty and does not hear the distress signal. Fortunately, the radio operator on the RMS Carpathia receives the distress call and alerts Captain Arthur Rostron, who orders the ship to head to the site. Unfortunately, the ship is 58 miles away, and will take around four hours to reach the Titanic. Meanwhile, the Californian remains where it is, the crew failing to comprehend why the large ship they are in sight of is firing rockets. Captain Smith orders Officers Lightoller and William Murdoch to start lowering the lifeboats. On Lightoller's side, men are not allowed on board, but Murdoch, working the other side of the ship, is far more lenient, letting men board lifeboats. Chief Baker Charles Joughin, after giving up his space in a lifeboat, turns to the bottle to ease his ailments. In the Grand Staircase, Robbie Lucas runs into Mr. Andrews and asks if the ship is seriously damaged. Andrews tells him to get his wife and children into the boats. Lucas rouses his children and wife to go to the lifeboats. He gets them safety in a boat, and turns away, realizing he will never see his family again. Murphy, Gallagher, and Farrel help the Polish girl, and her mother find their way though the ship, and get them in a lifeboat. The Richards, and Hoyle are admitted to a boat by Murdoch. Yates gives a female passenger a note to send to his sister. Several woman refuse to leave their husbands, inadvertently setting an example for Mrs. Clarke, who first decides to stay with her husband, until Andrews advises them on how to escape the sinking ship. As the stewards struggle to hold back women and children in third-class, most of those from first- and second-class board the lifeboats and launch away from the ship. The ship quickly fills with water, and the passengers begin to realize the danger, as the ship lists more and more. When the third-class passengers are allowed up from below, chaos ensues. The Titanic's bow submerges, and only two collapsible lifeboats are left. Lightoller and other able seamen struggle to free them, when the ship begins its final plunge. Captain Smith retreats into the bridge as the ship sinks, dying when the bridge is engulfed by the sea. Lightoller and many others are swept off the ship. Thomas Andrews remains in the first-class smoking room, lamenting his failure to build a strong and safe ship. Passengers jump into the sea as the stern rises high into the air. The Clarkes, struggling in the water, are killed by a falling funnel. The stricken liner rapidly sinks into the icy sea.

Many passengers, including Lucas, and Farrel, die of hypothermia. One of the collapsibles is floating overturned, so Lightoller and a few more men balance on it and wait. Yates, denied access to the upturned boat, swims away to drown himself. Murphy and Gallagher make it to the collapsible, and are taken on board. Joughin holds onto the side, not minding the cold because he's been drinking, and is eventually taken aboard. Lightoller spots another boat, and the men are saved. The Carpathia arrives and rescues the survivors. On the Carpathia, after a group prayer, Lightoller is told by Rostron the numbers of the saved and lost. In all, 1500 people were lost; 705 survived.


Cast notes:


The film is based on Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember (1955), but in Ray Johnson's documentary The Making of 'A Night to Remember' (1993), Lord says that when he wrote his book, there was no mass interest in the Titanic,[13] and he was the first writer in four decades to attempt a grand-scale history of the disaster, synthesizing written sources and survivors' firsthand accounts. Lord dated the genesis of his interest in the subject to childhood. So did producer MacQuitty, who, as a boy of six, watched the Titanic set out from Belfast, as well as screenwriter Ambler, who was a lad in London when the ship was launched. MacQuitty had seen Titanic being launched on 31 May 1911 and still remembered the occasion vividly.[14] He also watched the maiden voyage departure the following year.

The book has been previously adapted as a live adaptation screened on 28 March 1956 by NBC TV and sponsored by Kraft Foods as part of the Kraft Television Theatre strand.[15] It has been described as "the biggest, most lavish, most expensive thing of its kind" attempted up to that point, with 31 sets, 107 actors, 72 speaking parts, 3,000 gallons of water and costing $95,000 ($875,465.1 at present-day prices). George Roy Hill directed and Claude Rains provided a narration[16] – a practice borrowed from radio dramas which provided a template for many television dramas of the time.[17] It took a similar approach to the book, lacking dominant characters and switching between a multiplicity of scenes. Rains' narration was used "to bridge the almost limitless number of sequences of life aboard the doomed liner", as a reviewer put it,[18] and closed with his declaration that "never again has Man been so confident. An age had come to an end."[19] The production was a major hit, attracting 28 million viewers, and greatly boosted the book's sales.[16] It was rerun on kinescope on 2 May 1956, five weeks after its first broadcast.[15][20]

The film adaptation came about after its eventual director, Roy Ward Baker, and its producer, Belfast-born William MacQuitty both acquired copies of the book – Baker from his favorite bookshop and MacQuitty from his wife – and decided to obtain the film rights. He met Lord and brought him on board the production as a consultant.[21] The film diverges from both the book and the NBC TV adaptation in focusing on a central character, Second Officer Charles Lightoller, played by More. Its conclusion reflects Lord's world-historical theme of a "world changed for ever" with a fictional conversation between two survivors, Lightoller and Colonel Archibald Gracie, sitting on an overturned lifeboat. Lightoller declares that the disaster is "different ... Because we were so sure. Because even though it's happened, it's still unbelievable. I don't think I'll ever feel sure again. About anything."[19] Producer MacQuitty had originally contracted with Shaw, Savill & Albion Line to use its former flagship QSMV Dominion Monarch to shoot scenes for the film, but the company pulled out of the production at the last minute, citing that they did not want to use one of their liners to recreate the Titanic sinking. However, according to MacQuitty, the Shaw Savill Line at the time was managed by Basil Sanderson, son of Harold Sanderson, the White Star Line's director in the U.S. at the time of the sinking. Harold Sanderson would later succeed J. Bruce Ismay as president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, J.P. Morgan's shipping conglomerate that owned the White Star Line. This connection to White Star, according to MacQuitty, is what actually led the Shaw Savill Line to pull out of the film. MacQuitty eventually got permission from Ship Breaking Industries in Faslane, Scotland to film scenes aboard RMS Asturias, a 1920s ocean liner that the company was scrapping. The liner's port side had been demolished, but its starboard was still intact, and so MacQuitty got art students to paint the liner the White Star Line colors and used mirrors to recreate scenes that took place on the port side. 30 sets were constructed using the builders' original plans for Titanic.[22]

The film was to a significant extent fictional, based on real events but with numerous changes made to increase its drama and appeal. The composite characters, while based in large part on Americans, are depicted as British, and the involvement of American passengers was either limited or left out (with the exception of the Strauses, Guggenheim, Molly Brown and Colonel Gracie). When questioned as to why he did the changes, Roy Baker noted that "it was a British film made by British artists for a British audience".[23]

In addition to basing the script — both in action and dialogue — on Lord's book, the filmmakers achieved nuanced performances and authentic atmosphere by consulting several actual Titanic survivors who served as technical advisors. Among them were Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, and passengers Edith Russell and Lawrence Beesley.[2] One day during shooting Beesley famously gatecrashed the set; he infiltrated the set during the sinking scene, hoping to 'go down with the ship', but was discovered by the director, who ordered him off, and vetoed this unscheduled appearance due to actors' union rules; thus, as Julian Barnes puts it, "for the second time in his life, Beesley left the Titanic just before it was due to go down."[24] Charles Lightoller's widow Sylvia Lightoller was also consulted during production, at one point visiting Pinewood Studios and meeting with Kenneth More, whom she introduced to her children on set. Sylvia commended More for the role of her husband.[25]

Kenneth More recalled the production of the film in his autobiography, published 20 years later in 1978. There was no tank big enough at Pinewood Studios to film the survivors struggling to climb into lifeboats, so it was done in the open-air swimming bath at Ruislip Lido, at 2:00am on an icy November morning. When the extras refused to jump in, More realised he would have to set an example. He called out: "Come on!"

I leaped. Never have I experienced such cold in all my life. It was like jumping into a deep freeze. The shock forced the breath out of my body. My heart seemed to stop beating. I felt crushed, unable to think. I had rigor mortis, without the mortis. And then I surfaced, spat out the dirty water and, gasping for breath, found my voice.

"Stop!" I shouted. "Don't listen to me! It's bloody awful! Stay where you are!"

But it was too late ....[26]

During the sinking, a steward pauses as he flees through the first-class smoking room to ask ship's designer Thomas Andrews, "Aren't you going to try for it, Mr Andrews?" This sequence was replicated essentially word-for-word in Titanic (1997), substituting that film's protagonists Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater instead of the steward. The scene was also repeated in S.O.S. Titanic (1979), with a stewardess asking him if he will save himself, pointing out that there would be questions that only he could answer.

Four clips from the Nazi propaganda film Titanic (1943) were used in A Night to Remember; two of the ship sailing in calm waters during the day, and two of a flooding walkway in the engine room.[27] As Brian Hawkins writes: the British came closest "to the Titanic truth in 1958 with their black-and-white production of Walter Lord's novel A Night to Remember, seamlessly incorporating sequences from director Herbert Selpin's 1943 (Nazi) Titanic without giving any screen credits for these incredible scenes."[28] Selpin himself was arrested on instruction from Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels over the course of production in early August 1942, for offering a negative opinion of the German military while directing this earlier Nazi era film. He was then found dead in his prison cell.

Historical accuracy

The film is regarded as one of the most historically accurate Titanic disaster films, with the exception of not featuring the ship breaking in half. (There was still doubt about the fact she split in two when the book and film were produced. The accepted view at the time and the result of the inquires was that she sank intact; it was only confirmed that she split after the wreck was found in 1985.) [29][30] Lightoller's widow Sylvia Lightoller praised the film's historical accuracy in an interview with The Guardian, stating "The film is really the truth and has not been embroidered".[25]

However, although some events are based on true history, the characters and the storyline are fictional; the characters of Mr. Murphy, Mr. Gallagher, Mr Hoyle, and Jay Yates are composites of several men.[31] Murphy, who leads the steerage girls to the lifeboat, is a composite of several Irish emigrants. Hoyle, the gambler who gets into the lifeboat on the starboard side, is a composite of several such figures, men determined to save themselves at all costs. Robbie Lucas and Mrs. Liz Lucas are composites of several married couples, notably Mr Lucian P. Smith and Mrs Eloise Hughes Smith. Lucas even says the words actually spoken by Lucien Smith to his wife: "I never expected to ask you to obey me, but this is one time you must".[32] Mr. Clarke and Mrs. Clarke are composites of several honeymoon couples, notably Mr. John Chapman and Mrs. Sarah Chapman, a pair of newlyweds from second-class who died in the sinking. In real life, when Sarah boarded a lifeboat, she found that her husband John couldn't go. She turned back saying. Goodbye' Mrs. Richards. If John can't go, I won't go either. John Chapman's body was recovered by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, and there were no mentions or indications that his body was crushed, soot-blackened or disfigured in a manner suggesting that he had been killed by a falling funnel. Sarah's body was never found.[33] The involvement of American passengers was either limited or left out (with the exception of the Strauses, Guggenheim, Molly Brown and Colonel Gracie).[23]

Several historical figures were renamed or went unnamed to avoid potential legal action. Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon and Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon are depicted as Sir Richard and Lady Richard (Lady Duff's secretary Miss Francatelli is completely omitted) and Bruce Ismay is referred to throughout only as "The Chairman".

The film omits several key historical figures, including John Jacob Astor IV, the wealthiest passenger aboard Titanic, and Stoker Frederick Barrett, with 2nd Engineer Officer John Henry Hesketh's role being expanded to include duties and actions that were performed by Barrett and others.[31]

In reality, the American gambler Jay Yates (played as British by the distinctive British actor Ralph Michael) was never on board the Titanic and the note he was said to have handed to a passenger was a hoax. Yates wrote the note in New York and then had a woman accomplice pose as a survivor and deliver the note to the newspaper. Yates did this in order to make the police think he was dead. They didn't fall for the ruse, though, and Yates was captured a couple of months after the sinking. (He was wanted on federal charges connected with postal thefts.)

The film was also clearly intended as a vehicle for its main star, Kenneth More, who played Lightoller. Throughout the sinking, Lightoller is shown personally loading nearly every lifeboat. In reality, many of Lightoller's actions were performed by other officers.[31][34]

The painting in the first-class smoking room is incorrectly shown as depicting the entrance to New York Harbor. It actually depicted the entrance to Plymouth Sound, which Titanic had been expected to visit on her return voyage. It was an error made by Walter Lord in his research which he acknowledged in the documentary "The Making of A Night to Remember". [35][36][37]

The first scene of A Night to Remember depicts the christening of the ship at its launch. However, the Titanic was never christened, as it was not the practice of the White Star Line to stand on this sort of ceremony. This has come down in popular lore as one of the many contributing factors to the ship's "bad luck".

The crew, including Captain Smith, is depicted having a full trust in the Titanic, considering her "unsinkable", an allegation which was never claimed with such certainty.[38]

Lightoller is depicted nearly being crushed by the fourth funnel falling in the ship's last moments. It was actually the first funnel that fell near Lightoller.[39][40][31]

Murphy and Gallagher make it to the overturned Collapsible B with a child in their arms, which they pass to Lightoller. Lightoller takes one look inside the child's hood, realizes it is dead and sets it adrift in the ocean. In real life, neither Lightoller, nor anyone else on the overturned boat, ever reported receiving a child from the water.


Upon its December 1958 U.S. premiere, Bosley Crowther called the film a "tense, exciting and supremely awesome drama...[that] puts the story of the great disaster in simple human terms and yet brings it all into a drama of monumental unity and scope"; according to Crowther:[41]

this remarkable picture is a brilliant and moving account of the behavior of the people on the Titanic on that night that should never be forgotten. It is an account of the casualness and flippancy of most of the people right after the great ship has struck (even though an ominous cascade of water is pouring into her bowels); of the slow accumulation of panic that finally mounts to a human holocaust, of shockingly ugly bits of baseness and of wonderfully brave and noble deeds.

Although it won numerous awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film and received high praise from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic,[42] it was at best only a modest commercial success due to its original huge budget and a relatively poor impact in America.[43] It has nonetheless aged well; the film has considerable artistic merit and, according to Professor Paul Heyer, it helped to spark the wave of disaster films that included The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).[42] Heyer comments that it "still stands as the definitive cinematic telling of the story and the prototype and finest example of the disaster-film genre."[6] On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a "certified fresh" score of 100% based on 20 reviews with an average score of 8.71/10.[44] It is considered "the best Titanic film before Titanic (1997)" and "the most accurate of all Titanic films" [29] and "the definitive Titanic tale",[45] especially for its social realism, reflecting, in the words of one critic, "the overwhelming historical evidence that the class rigidity of 1912, for all its defects, produced a genuine sense of behavioural obligation on the Titanic among rich and poor alike; that the greatest number of people aboard faced death or hardship with a stoic and selfless grace that the world has wondered at for most of this century."[46]

Home video

A Night to Remember is one of the Criterion Collection's early titles. A high definition upgrade of the DVD and a Blu-ray edition were released on 27 March 2012 to commemorate the centennial of the sinking.

See also


  1. Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (10 July 2018). "British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference". Oxford University Press via Google Books.
  2. Ward 2012, p. 226.
  3. Street 2004, p. 143.
  4. "Miss Elizabeth Dowdell". encyclopedia titanica. Retrieved 25 March 2012.
  5. Night To Remember, a Archived 14 April 2013 at Archive.today HFPA Retrieved 2010-01-04.
  6. Heyer 2012, p. 104.
  7. Janice Hooker Rushing and Thomas S. Frentz, "Singing over the bones: James Cameron's Titanic", Critical Studies in Media Communication (ICMC), Volume 17, Issue 1 (1 March 2000), pp. 1–27.
  8. Celeste Cumming Mt. Lebanon, "Early Titanic Film A Movie to Remember", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (11 September 1998), p. 39.
  9. P. Parisi, Titanic and the making of James Cameron (New York: Newmarket Press, 1998), p. 127.
  10. "Gordon Holdom" on the British Pathé website
  11. "A Night To Remember". www.aveleyman.com.
  12. A Night to Remember on IMDb
  13. Sragow, Michael (26 March 2012). "Nearer, My Titanic to Thee". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 27 April 2012.
  14. Mayer 2004, p. 31.
  15. Anderson 2005, p. 97.
  16. Biel 1996, p. 151.
  17. Anderson 2005, p. 98.
  18. Biel 1996, p. 160.
  19. Biel 1996, p. 161.
  20. Rasor 2001, p. 119.
  21. Heyer 2012, p. 149.
  22. Aldridge 2008, p. 89.
  23. The Titanic on Film: Myth versus Truth Linda Maria Koldau; McFarland, 2012 307 pages, page 139
  24. Barnes 2010, p. 175.
  25. "Widow of Titanic Officer visits Chorley". Encyclopedia Titanica. Retrieved 2 September 2017.
  26. More, Kenneth (1978). More or Less. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-340-22603-2."
  27. "Matte Shot: a Tribute to Golden Era special fx". Retrieved 26 May 2011.
  28. Brian Hawkins, The Titanic's last victim: in 1942, a German film director put a uniquely Nazi take on the great ship's sinking. The reviews were deadly, The National Post, Thursday 12 April 2012, p.A10
  29. Michael Janusonis, "VIDEO – Documentary just the tip of the iceberg for Titanic fans", The Providence Journal (5 September 2003), E-05.
  30. "Titanic". Variety. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  31. The Goofs of A Night To Remember (1958, Rank Pictures)
  32. Melissa Jo Peltier (1994). Titanic: Death of a Dream (documentary). United States: A&E Network.
  33. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/frozen-in-time-the-watch-which-shows-the-moment-378299
  34. ON A SEA OF GLASS: THE LIFE & LOSS OF THE RMS TITANIC" by Tad Fitch, J. Kent Layton & Bill Wormstedt. Amberley Books, March 2012. pp 278
  35. Eaton & Haas 1994, p. 155.
  36. (Walter Lord 1998, p. 113)
  37. (Mark Chirnside 2004, p. 177)
  38. Richard Howells, The Myth of the Titanic, ISBN 0-333-72597-2
  39. Barczewski 2006, p. 28.
  40. Winocour 1960, p. 299.
  41. Crowther, Bosley (17 December 1958). "Screen: Sinking of Titanic; A Night to Remember Opens at Criterion". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 December 2012.
  42. Heyer 2012, p. 151.
  43. Richards 2003, p. 98.
  44. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1015079_night_to_remember
  45. Howard Thompson, "Movies This Week", The New York Times (9 August 1998), p. 6, col. 1.
  46. Ken Ringle, "Integrity Goes Down With the Ship; Historical Facts, Including True-Life Gallantry, Lost in Titanic", The Washington Post (22 March 1998), p. G08.
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