In Night and Ice

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, we look at just a few of the many screen portrayals of one the most infamous* disasters of the 20th Century. Spoiler warning – we do reveal details of the fate of the RMS Titanic.

Titanic (1997)
by Phil Concannon

The search for survivors was made to look rather easy.

Although Titanic collected 11 out of the 14 Academy Awards it was nominated for on March 23rd 1998, the most telling nomination may be one that it didn’t receive – Best Original Screenplay.  James Cameron’s epic may be the best film ever made from a lousy script. The screenplay is rife with thin characterisations, clunky dialogue, dim-witted namedropping (“Freud? Is he a passenger?”) and implausible storytelling. It should have been a disaster – everyone was anticipating a disaster – but through an unshakeable confidence in his own instincts and sheer force of will, Cameron turned it into one of the great mass-appeal blockbusters and crowned himself The King of the World.

Watching Titanic on opening night in 1997 was a spectacular, singular moviegoing experience. The atmosphere was charged with emotion, as half the audience wept over the film’s tragic romance while the other half cheered the thrilling stuntwork and effects involved in the ship’s demise. I liked it back then, and then didn’t really think about it much during the next 15 years, until the film’s recent cinema re-release with added (and entirely pointless) 3D. I’ve had opportunities to re-watch the film in recent years but I’m glad I skipped them, because this is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s not a clever film or a subtle one, but it swamps the viewer with peerless spectacle and big emotions. You can either roll your eyes at this approach, or brace yourself and go down with the ship.

Cameron’s lack of nuance is at its most glaring in Titanic‘s first half, in which we are essentially marking time until that iceberg appears on the horizon. When it does, we’re invited to believe that the ship collided with it because the two lookouts were distracted by Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) kissing passionately on the deck below them. This yoking together of a historical catastrophe and old-fashioned romantic melodrama is crude and threatens to trivialise the real story – why should we care about Rose choosing happy-go-lucky pauper Jack over rich swine Cal (Billy Zane, a hoot) when 1,500 people are about to lose their lives? But it’s all part of Cameron’s tactic to find the most direct route to the audience’s emotions. He’s painting with broad strokes on a huge canvas, like a modern-day DW Griffith, which is the key to the film’s unprecedented success.

If Cameron lacks the Lubitsch touch when it comes to the romantic aspect of his film, he’s in his element when disaster strikes, with the staging of the ship’s destruction remaining an awesome feat of filmmaking. Shot and edited with remarkable clarity, Cameron’s orchestration of the various stages of the sinking is meticulous, gripping and frequently astonishing. Sure, he is guilty of some howlers here (“Jack, this is where we first met” Rose states as they grip the stern of the stricken ship) but for the most part this climactic sequence gives us the opportunity to watch one of cinema’s supreme showmen fully flexing his filmmaking muscles, and it’s a wonder to behold. Titanic is often mocked and sneered at today, but in the 15 years that have elapsed since its release, only The Lord of the Rings and Cameron’s own Avatar have dared to match it for ambition, spectacle and impact, and its re-release is likely to win it many new fans.

That Celine Dion song still stinks, mind.

A Night to Remember
by Mr Moth

'Number thirty four, lads? Here Comes the Hotstepper?'

“She should live… About… another hour and a half. Yes. About that, I think”.

Based not on the 1982 Shalamar hit but on rather Walter Lord’s factual account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, A Night to Remember is the film Titanic should have been. Level where Cameron veers into delirium (a guns-blazing pursuit through the flooding ship? Puh-lease), quiet where Titanic bellows, dignified and quietly heart-stopping where the Biggest Film of All Time pursues empty spectacle and forced emotion. It may be one of my favourite films of all time; a simple, sober telling of an already heart-breaking story.  Perhaps critically, it’s a very British telling of the tale. Stiff upper lip. Band plays on. Nobody must panic.

I saw A Night to Remember on late-night television as a teenager. At first I found the RP delivery of the actors and (by today’s standards) glacial editing difficult to like, but it wasn’t long before the economical, graceful construction of tiny dramas drew me in and kept me there.

It doesn’t hang about, either; the boat is struck about half an hour in and the rest of the running time is spent following the aftermath. From eye-rolling stewards and steerage passengers playing football with the ice on deck it gently turns the tension up; as the dawning realisation of the true horror of the situation sinks in, A Night to Remember becomes thrillingly claustrophobic without ever feeling like it has changed gears. The impartial, almost documentary style never wavers, the impassive eye of history remains steady.

As I said earlier, the real hook of the film is its lack of focus on a single story. Some passengers get more screen time than others, and the eye of the story is undoubtedly Kenneth More’s Second Officer Lightoller, but this is the story of the last night of Titanic. Small gestures count. Trifling acts of heroism become unbearably moving simply because of the situation. Bravery tips over into folly before tumbling into nobility – perhaps best exemplified by Benjamin Guggenheim’s famous assertion that “We have dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”. Cowardice is noted, without judgement. Can any of us say with certainty we would behave any better?

When the ship finally sinks – here shown sliding into the ocean in one piece (an inaccuracy based on crew members’ accounts and not borne out by the discovery of the wreck in two parts) – it is played as a raw terror; a screaming, terrified mass of humanity with no hope. This is one of the few moments when the film really pushes the button marked ‘CRY NOW’, but I can forgive that moment of weakness, at the end.

A Night to Remember ends as quietly as it begins, with a post-mortem aboard the Carpathia, a moment or two of quiet reflection and simple scrolling text telling us of the safety improvements instituted as a result of the tragedy. This writing isn’t just a post-script to a powerful, elegant film – it is the inscription on a memorial.

Titanic (2012)
by Matthew Turner

'So, er, back to my cabin for some sketching?'

I suspect that even if it hadn’t been written by Julian Fellowes, ITV’s 4-part Titanic series (which reached its tear-stained conclusion last night) would still have earned the nickname “Drownton”, not least because with its combination of multiple rich and poor characters, Titanic practically IS a floating Downton Abbey. Other nicknames were floating about (“Upstairs Drownstairs”), but some things are just too perfect and besides, #drownton made the better hashtag.

The structure of the series was initially confusing, with many viewers expressing surprise when the ship hit the iceberg about 40 minutes into the first episode. However, it soon emerged that the format had been cleverly juggled to maximise tears in the water-logged finale. In practice that meant that the first episode hastily introduced all the characters (57 named characters in total, according to imdb) and took them through to the initial manning of the lifeboats and then the subsequent episodes wound back to the beginning and concentrated on just a few of the characters we’d already met, with each episode featuring both the hitting of the iceberg and some faffing around with lifeboats, but not quite revealing its cards in terms of who was going to make it.

In fact, the second and third episodes concentrated primarily on three groups of working class characters, and though the first episode dealt with the upper class characters in what seemed like great detail, none of their stories really went anywhere of any consequence. Rich Man X (Linus Roache, Toby Jones, Peter Wight) has a disagreement with his wife, Rich Woman Y (Geraldine Somerville, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Celia Imrie), which is all forgiven when it comes to drowning time (one of the above snuffs it, one is close to death at the end, one is completely forgotten and disappears). There was also a lot of class snobbery and sneering, particularly towards the various Americans (notably Sophie Winkleman as Dorothy Gibson and Linda Kash as Mrs Brown), but again, all this was forgiven and forgotten once the drowning started.

That said, despite its over-stuffed, initially confusing first episode and the occasional cheesy line, the scriptwriting was pretty decent overall, marshalling its various clichés in very effective manner. Most impressive in this regard was the “romance” between rebellious posho Georgiana (Perdita Weeks) and millionaire’s son Harry Widener (Noah Reid), which was economically conveyed with just two scenes in the final episode and yet still managed to raise a tear, thanks to a particularly romantic speech on Harry’s part about always looking after her if he carks it and it turns out there’s an after-life. Elsewhere, however, the tear-jerking was much more relentless: kind-hearted stewardess Annie
Desmond (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and idealistic Italian waiter Paolo Sandrini  (Glen
Blackhall) became the Jack and Rose of the good ship Fellowes and there were heroic sacrifices all over the shop, with various wrong’uns redeeming themselves before succumbing to a watery end. The one story that didn’t ring true here was the Maloney family – having found his runaway daughter, Maloney opts to stay and drown with her rather than making any attempt -at all- to save her. Maybe there was a sequence that got cut that explained why they were trapped?

The other limitation on Fellowes’ Titanic – particularly when weighed against Cameron’s epic – was the budget available for special effects, so there were very few outdoor scenes and you never saw any of the more expensive-looking sets get flooded, for example. That said, the production busted out some decent digital effects (mostly in long-shot from the POV of the lifeboats) for the final episode, but it skimped on the overall spectacle of the whole thing.

However, there were several incidental pleasures to be had with RMS Fellowes, chief amongst which was ticking off all the scenes from Cameron’s Titanic (and, by implication, the “official” story), e.g. “Iceberg, right ahead!”, the Captain (David Calder) going down with the ship, the band playing on deck while the lifeboats are manned, the “unsinkable” Molly Brown pleading to turn back in their half-empty lifeboat, cowardly White Star chairman Ismay (James Wilby) leaping into a lifeboat at the last minute, the crewmen firing guns to keep people back, the working classes locked in steerage by the stewards and so on.

Other, more childish, pleasures included imagining that some of the actors were actually their other more famous TV roles (Sophie Winkleman was Peep Show’s Big Suze, Lee Ross as a devoted manservant helping a lady’s maid cover up the fact that she had stolen from her employer was Evil Owen from EastEnders and Maria Doyle Kennedy was  The First Mrs Bates from Downton Abbey) and, of course, betting on who was going to survive at the end.

With big budget special effects off the table from the outset and so many characters on board (arguably slightly too many), it was always going to be  difficult to live up to both the spectacle and the emotion of James Cameron’s epic, but Drownton pulled off a number of exciting moments and served up a decent amount of tear-jerking moments without going too far overboard in terms of sentimentality. Also, Doctor Who’s new companion is very nice indeed…

In Nacht und Eis
by Philip Concannon

'I foresee a big future for us, Captain Birdseye..'

Whenever a film inspired by a real-life tragedy is released today, the question of whether it’s “too soon” to turn disaster into drama is quickly raised. Back in 1912, however, they wasted even less time in putting such events on screen. In Nacht und Eis was a German production that was filmed and released just few months after the Titanic sank. Like most silent films it was lost for many decades, but it re-emerged in 1998 shortly after the release of James Cameron’s Titanic, and there are actually some interesting parallels to be made with Cameron’s film. The 35-minute running time made In Nacht und Eis something of an epic in its day, and it was a film similarly driven by spectacular effects – although these effects admittedly look rather less impressive today.

Thankfully, director Mime Misu has no time for cheesy romance, and all we get by way of build-up to the main event is repetitive shots of characters optimistically boarding the ship and happily wandering around the deck or indulging in games, while the captain and his first mate gaze out to sea through their binoculars. The atmosphere changes as night falls, and a blue hue develops a sense of foreboding as the ship sails towards its fate. In Nacht und Eis uses colour tinting effectively on a number of occasions, most notably when a shot of a stoker hauling coal into a giant burner is given a hellish feel by the red tinting, a shot that’s also one of the few glimpses we are given of the manual workers or lower class passengers on the ship. Most of the film observes the wealthy passengers enjoying their luxurious staterooms, although Misu keeps cutting away to external shots of the ship sailing through the deceptively calm seas.

When the ship does encounter the iceberg, the film begins to be a little more fast and loose with its history. The captain and his first mate spot the iceberg through their binoculars, leading to much wide-eyed panic and flailing limbs as they run to and fro (no stiff upper lips here!), but they can do nothing to prevent the collision. Instead of the slight tremor reported by the passengers, we see them being hurled forward by the force of the impact, and in one of the picture’s odder deviations from fact, the captain swims out to sea to get one of his crew members into a lifeboat, before swimming back to the ship. As for the moment of impact itself; well, it’s basically a toy ship slowly sailing into a lump of ice, and to viewers today it looks as realistic as it sounds. We see nothing more of the ship going down after that point, with the climactic ten minutes largely focusing on people getting into lifeboats while a radio operator frantically calls for help as someone off camera throws buckets of water at him.

In Nacht und Eis is all pretty rudimentary and light on details, but details were hard to come by in the immediate aftermath of the Titanic’s sinking, so perhaps this mixture of known facts and uneducated guesses is as close as the filmmakers could have got to the real thing. There might not be much to this film, but it is interesting to see the sinking of Titanic depicted from the perspective of people for whom it was a very fresh memory.

*Or possibly not

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