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Classic Cinema Corner: A Night to Remember

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Having appeared as the focal point of the highest-grossing film of all time, the Titanic has certainly had its share of silver screen fame. Not only did James Cameron's 1997 epic succeed in becoming the highest grossing film of all time, but it also garnered massive critical claim, and triumphed at the Academy Awards with a record-tying 11 awards.

However, the star-crossed luxury liner had been a source of interest in Hollywood long before the epic film was released. The 1933 Best Picture winner Calvacade had a classic reference to the disaster, as well as a 1953 film that was also titled Titanic. There was  even a musical inspired by one of the ship's most outspoken passengers, Molly Brown.

While these other films certainly have their merits, the 1958 film A Night to Remember still stands as one of the most accurate and most intriguing portrayals of the ill-fated ship. Adapted from Walter Lord's meticulous account of the disaster, the movie was produced out of countless eyewitness accounts of the disaster, as well as input from those involved with the ship's design and construction. Unlike the 1997 film, the plot of the film is not driven by a fabricated romance; instead, director Roy Ward Baker chose to present the film in a more biographical manner. There is no particular story in the movie that drives the entire production, but instead the film weaves a number of actual accounts and stories throughout the film. This film made the bold decision to have the tragedy itself stand as the central figure in the film, rather than merely stand as the stage for another tale.

Is the film a perfect account of the disaster? The short answer is no. One major flaw in the accuracy of the picture is the way in which the ship sank. Like so many of the earliest film depictions of the sinking, this film portrays the ship sinking in one piece, rather than breaking in two before descending to the ocean floor. Yet it would be quite unfair to criticize the filmmakers for this mistake; this fact was not confirmed until oceanographers discovered the wreckage in the early 1980s. There are a number of smaller errors in the film that have since been proven as false. The more luxurious aspects of the film are not depicted as prominently as in later efforts as well.

Yet even with its errors, this still stands as a pretty detailed account of what actually occurred on the ship. Those who have seen the 1997 film will notice that James Cameron applied many of the classic scenes and events in this film in his own feature. The actions and behavior of ship designer Thomas Andrew, Captain Edward Smith, and the band are nearly identical in both films. The sequence of events in the sinking is also presented in a very similar fashion in both movies. Even some of the lines are identical in both films: one scene in particular that stands out is one where a young couple asks the ship designer if he is even going to try to save himself, a question that is presented in the same context by a young couple in the more recent film. It is true that the 1997 movie may have provided a better account of what actually occurred on that fateful night, but it also seems that the film would have not been possible without the wealth of source material that this film provided. This fact is even more impressive when you consider the film was released 50 years ago, and is still a visually spectacular film.

Movies like A Night to Remember show that film has the ability to not only to share fascinating tales of fiction with the general public, but the medium is also a tool that can be used to create a realistic record of actual events. Because of the ingenuity of films like this, we have a visual reference with which we can attempt to understand this iconic moment in history. In some cases, it would seem that viewing a well-constructed film is just as informative as analyzing the text of a history book.

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About Michael Clayton