The late Walter Lord is kind of a legend among Titanic buffs and historians. When he wrote A Night To Remember, which was published in 1955, he basically inspired the public fascination with the ship that continues today. Pretty much every book written about the Titanic uses Walter Lord’s work as a source because he’s that OG.
How did Lord come to write about the Titanic? Simple: He and his editor were looking for a new project for him to work on. Lord had been fascinated with the wreck since he was a little boy, and there was no time like the present to indulge that interest. Also, two years previously Twentieth Century Fox released Titanic, a successful feature so riddled with historical errors that I have to wonder if Lord felt like doing some mythbusting.
The major obstacle Lord had was finding survivors. Most of them were still alive, but after the media circus died down, these people faded into the background, and no one thought to create a survivor’s association. Support groups weren’t a thing in the Edwardian era anyway, plus two world wars pushed the wreck and the survivors even farther into the rear view mirror.
Lord didn’t have to start from scratch. The ship’s manifest helped up to a point, but some of the women had married or remarried. Others, like Harold Bride, adopted assumed names. He started writing letters according to where he figured survivors had settled in the United States, and in the end, Lord interviewed sixty-three survivors via correspondence. He had also done research beforehand on his own, looking in old newspapers at his college library. The result is formidable although the book isn’t super-long–there’s an incredible amount of detail, as well as a high vicarity factor. It’s not overwhelming, though, and the book reads like a novel.
A Night To Remember hits the ground running. It mostly sticks to the night of the sinking, emphasizing how normal everything appeared up until the iceberg was hit. People played poker and bridge, couples walked the deck, gentlemen hit the bar, families were in bed. The passengers were easily settled into life onboard, and the voyage was routine enough that they noticed right away when the engines stopped.
From there, the book is a mixture of sorta-controlled chaos and disbelief. It’s not much of a surprise to those who have some knowledge of Titanic, as all the familiar faces are there: Isidor and Ida Strauss, the doomed Allison family forever searching for their little boy, Edith Russell and her lucky pig. The book takes us aboard the Carpathia when it rescued the survivors, and how its own passengers felt when they found almost eight-hundred extra people were aboard. We see the surviving Titanic officers searching for people in the water and the high price they paid for waiting for the screaming to die down. The horror of that night is thick enough to slice, but too compelling to look away from.
There’s also a detailed look at Chief Baker Charles Joughin‘s experiences with the sinking, and if you’re not familiar with this fellow, he’s the one who is clinging to the stern railing looking at Jack and Rose in the James Cameron movie. The guy drank two bottles of whiskey when he heard the ship was going to sink, and threw about fifty deck chairs off the ship for people to cling to. When it went out from under him Joughin was able to step into the water without getting his head wet. Joughin survived the frigid temperatures because the alcohol in his system acted like an antifreeze.
The one thing that Lord got wrong was the manner in which the ship foundered. Despite numerous testimonies to the contrary, many first class passengers such as Archibald Gracie swore up and down that the Titanic sank completely intact.
Why this was so important is kind of head-scratching, but it likely stemmed from a desire to keep up appearances. The Titanic was such a major achievement that any hint of negligence would have reflected badly on the upper class and the White Star Line, both of whom were supposed to be paragons of strength and perfection.
Hell-o-oo, guys, your ship hit an iceberg and sank. That seems to indicate a lack of perfection, but you do you.
The mores of the time worked in the upper crust’s favor, as the public were largely conditioned to believe a lofty first class passenger over a lowly peon from second or third class. Therefore, the official story was that the Titanic sank in one piece, and that’s what made it into A Night To Remember.
Nowadays, of course, we know better. When Dr. Robert Ballard led the expedition that discovered the wreck, we learned unequivocally that the peons were right, and at this very moment the Titanic is laying on the ocean floor in two pieces. Lord reviewed the passenger testimonies and revised his position, working it into a follow-up book, The Night Lives On.
Walter Lord’s life was changed forever by A Night To Remember. In addition to sparking interest in the Titanic, he was able to make friends with many of the survivors. Edith Russell even willed him her lucky pig. The book has never been out of print since its publication, and as Titanic historian Daniel Allen Butler noted, it has gone through over thirty editions and translated into twelve languages. Lord, who had been working in advertising, suddenly found himself a best-selling author.
A Night To Remember has graced the screen twice. The first time was in 1956 on live TV, when the Kraft Theatre staged a lavish production featuring narration by Claude Rains, thousands of gallons of water, thirty-one sets, and a $125,000 price tag. Running at just under an hour, the Kraft rendition didn’t have a cohesive narrative, just a series of blips, but was so successful that Kraft replayed the taped show on another night. The program is easily accessible on YouTube, although the prints don’t look great.
Producer William MacQuitty spearheaded the idea of making a feature film. He was a native of Belfast, Ireland where the Titanic was built, and he remembered seeing the ship at every stage of her crafting, including her launch. Everyone in town either worked in shipbuilding or for shipping companies, or else their relatives did, so the Titanic was very personal to them. MacQuitty never forgot the doomed liner, and when Walter Lord published his book MacQuitty knew it should be adapted into a movie.
John Davis, the chairman of MacQuitty’s studio, the Rank Organization, tried to talk him out of it. The film would have no big stars in it, it was too expensive, and Titanic was just another shipwreck. MacQuitty persisted. “It’s not just another shipwreck,” he said. “It’s the end of an era.”
MacQuitty got the green light, and the film was indeed the most expensive made by the Rank Organization, costing $1.68M. The production was shot at Pinewood Studios in England, with outdoor footage of the lifeboats taken at Ruislip Lido, a reservoir in Middlesex. It may not have had any big stars by Hollywood standards, but the film did have a main character in Second Officer Lightoller, played by Kenneth More, a durable actor well-known to British audiences. Unlike the book, the film does a quick overview of the four days before the sinking just to emphasize the White Star Line people’s confidence in the Titanic’s unsinkability. Only thing is, no one from the White Star Line made that claim–it started in a magazine called Shipbuilder, and quickly caught on with the public.
Night‘s cast is dizzyingly large, but there are a few familiar faces. Bernard Fox of Bewitched fame played lookout Frederick Fleet, and would go on to star as Archibald Gracie in the 1997 Titanic film. Jeremy Bulloch, who played Boba Fett in the original Star Wars trilogy, has an uncredited role as a little boy. Probably the most famous is NCIS‘s David McCallum, who plays a gallant, steady Harold Bride. Some of the people are composites or fictionalized, and even Lightoller was given more to do than his real life counterpart.
Besides those few tweaks, the film accurately portrays the experiences of all the classes on the ship, including steerage, some of whom are shown breaking through gates with axes in their efforts to get up to the lifeboats.
The real star is the ship itself, and it’s shown with an almost documentary realism. However, it’s conveys the emotion of the event, as some parts of the ship are used to subtly portray crucial moments in the night of the sinking. The most effective moment in my opinion is the actual moment the iceberg is struck. Instead of showing the berg, the film takes us to the First Class nursery, where it slowly zooms in on a rocking horse, which barely wiggles upon impact.
Night was a huge success, although it took time to build, gaining its audience by word of mouth. As Davis predicted, since the film didn’t boast any major stars, the American public didn’t flock to see it. MacQuitty had to go to America for a month and shop the movie around himself. The number of survivors who showed up to the premiere also boosted audience interest. In the end, it was well-received by both audiences and critics, winning a Golden Globe award for Best English-Foreign Language Film. Today, it’s considered the most accurate of all Titanic films.
MacQuitty noted in an interview years later how much the Titanic sinking caused the world to change, even in a short amount of time. Many people point to the number of lifeboats now required on ships, or the International Ice Patrol blowing up icebergs every year, but those weren’t the only alterations. For the first time in modern history, an individual’s worth wasn’t determined by class. On the memorials for the ship’s passengers, the names were listed in order of importance, but on First World War memorials, names were in alphabetical order. Stratification was wiped away. “It’s the end of arrogance,” said MacQuitty.
I think that’s why interest in the Titanic has never really abated since Walter Lord published A Night To Remember. While it’s tragic, it’s also fascinating to see a cross-section of Edwardian society and the barriers that existed between people for no other reason than their bank accounts. We see every aspect of human nature, good and not so good, and we wonder what we would have done in that situation, as well as considering the what-ifs. Finally, we see a beautiful ship, not long for travel but evergreen in the history books, and we want to take ourselves there. It’s been over a hundred years since the sinking, but Titanic is important to a lot of people, and we have Walter Lord to thank for that.
Coming up this month:
Yeah, they’re coming up soon, but if anyone would like to participate, these fine folks are the ones to see:
- Paul at Silver Screen Classics
- Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood
- Phyl at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies
- Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews
- Barry at Cinema Catharsis
Thanks for reading, everyone, and I hope you’ll come back Saturday for the first of these blogathons. Have a good one…
A Night To Remember is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.
Butler, Daniel Allen. Unsinkable: The Full Story of the RMS Titanic. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Lord, Walter. A Night To Remember. New York: Bantam Books, 1956. (paperback edition)
Lynch, Don with Ken Marschall. Titanic: An Illustrated History. Toronto, Ontario: Madison Press Books, 1992.
The Making Of A Night To Remember. Ray Johnson, Producer. 1993. (documentary)
4 thoughts on “Page To Screen: A Night To Remember”
Perhaps quarantine has me losing my wits, but until I hit the image, I thought the musical pig was a real live pig, not a music box. Why? No idea.
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Well, it is made with real pigskin, so you’re not too far off. 🙂
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We are indebted to Lord’s research and account of the tragedy. A Night to Remember is not something I return to often as it overwhelms me.
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Oh, I hear you on that. My son didn’t want to watch it with me because he said it was depressing.