Film Review: A Night to Remember (1956)

A Night to Remember film poster

A Night to Remember, directed by Roy Baker, is a powerful rendition of the harrowing tale of the Titanic’s maiden, and final voyage. Based closely on the non-fictional book by Walter Lord published in 1956, director Roy Baker brings to life the tragedy that occurred on board the Titanic.[1] The film was produced in the UK in 1958, and was widely seen as a semi-documentary style film, both at its time of release and today.[2] The film has a star studded cast, including Kenneth More as the main character, Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller.

The film follows the Second Officer Lightoller as he navigates first general luxury liner life, then later on the fateful crash and sinking of the infamous Titanic. The film explores the key facts know at the time, such as the inadequate amount of lifeboats, the co-owner of the White Star Line’s abrupt departure from the sinking ship, and the idea that ships band played until the very end (although this is now disputed). Furthermore, the film highlights some of the key failures that occurred during that fateful night. In particular one important part to highlight is the spotting of a ship, later known to by the S.S. California, who had stopped on account of the ice warnings ahead. While there is, of course, the underlying suggestion that the California could have saved hundreds, maybe even thousands more lives if it had responded to the Titanic’s distress calls, Baker also does well to highlights the failure of the Titanic crew to listen to the ice warning broadcasts in the first place. Similarly, the films also hints at the potential irreversible damage that the coal fire that raged before the departure may have caused, something which has only more recently been proven to be true. 

Second Officer Lightoller, played by Kenneth More

At a time of social change, the theme of class is often one that is found in all narratives of the Titanic story. However, while many focus mainly on the passengers of the upper class, such as can be seen in James Cameron’s Titanic, it can be seen that A Night to Remember is far more focused on the middle class experience of the tragic event. The films focus on the middle class makes perfect contextual sense, as Britain had recently emerged victorious and socially reconfigured from the Second World War.[3] While the aristocracy would likely have been the focus if the film was produced just twenty years earlier, social shifts after the war meant that the newly emerging middle class were increasingly given the spotlight, especially within the cinema industry.[4] A Night to Remember focuses on characters such as Lightoller to solidify the notion that it is the middle class who could keep control in the face of adversity, just as they had done during the war. 

The few glimpses the viewer does have of the upper class show them to believe themselves to be far more superior. In one instance, an upper class man exclaims “I say! Let’s go join the fun” as he watches the working class play football with ice from the iceberg, to which the woman next to him replies “But they’re steerage passengers” with a snooty voice and sneering look on her face.[5] It is this negative view towards the working class that demonstrates this film was intended to appeal to a middle class audience.[6] While the film can be seen to be taking a turn from the traditional focus of the upper class, it can also still be seen to be critical of the working class who had been pushed back into submission despite their efforts during the war. 

Furthermore, the theme of British national identity is one that can be found in most films produced in this period, and A Night to Remember is no exception. The film uses few close-ups, but rather is comprised of mainly larger shots, “to emphasis the collective rather than the individual nature of the experience.”[7] This use of camera work highlighted that Britain faced disasters and hardships with a strong united front. Other hints at British national identity are also made, such as a young boy wearing a H.M.S Nelson sailors cap as he is passed into one of the lifeboats during the chaos.[8] Britain had once been a great and majestic naval superpower before the twentieth century. While the sinking of the Titanic was a great maritime disaster for Britain, this subtle hint at previous maritime success is hard not to notice. 

Charles Herbert Lightoller, c. 1920

The period after the war was seen as the time when ordinary people could be heroes, and this is greatly captured specifically in Lightoller’s character.[9] Lightoller shows characteristics of a good nature, a sense of duty, calmness under pressure and natural authority, all of which constitute a British national hero, and are all traits that can be found in narratives of other maritime leaders.[10] He is seen to stay on board the sinking liner as long as possible to heroically help others, and later in the film takes command of a overturned lifeboat to go on to save at least a further ten people once in the sea.[11] The character of Lightoller is based on the real Lightoller himself, who later went on to serve first as a British Naval Officer during the First World War, and then as a Senior Naval Staff Officer during the Second World War. His own surviving of the Titanic was not only remarkable, but was the perfect story to highlight the stoicism and Britishness key to Baker’s rendition of the event.

A Night to Remember is a “very much a British film about a British ship…” and on this ship all the characters portray specific characteristics linked closely with British national identity.[12] The film celebrates the nation and the strength of its people, while also highlighting the tragedy that occurred. This idea can be seen throughout many of the crew members, as well as some of the passengers. It is also worth noting here, however, that it portrays women in a very stereotypical manner. Despite some gains across the early and mid-twentieth century, in the late 1950s women were still seen as weak, submissive and timid. The typical idea of ‘women and children first’ was obviously going to be seen, as this is something that comes up in many accounts of the Titian’s sinking. However, in A Night to Rememberwomen are portrayed almost as nuisances, with men having to demand and order them into lifeboats in order to heroically save their lives. The films has a very stereotypical gender bias running through it, however even this cannot take away from the overall brilliance of the film.

The Titanic departing Southampton on 10 April, 1912

A Night to Remember was released at a time of huge change, and for this reason it was unclear how the film would be received. However, the press were almost unanimously pleased with Baker’s film, with it receiving some of the best reviews of any Rank film.[13] While other films based on the Titanic were, and have since been, met with hostility, as the event was still imprinted considerably in popular memory, A Night to Remember received positive reactions from film critics. The film received several major film awards, however it did not do as well at the box office.[14] The film went on to be nominated for a BAFTA under Best British Screenplay in 1959, as well as for the Laurel Awards’ Top Cinematography – Black and White award. It also won Best English-Language Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, an award that, I believe, was very well deserved.[15]

In conclusion, A Night to Remember can be seen to be the most historically accurate of all the Titanic feature films to date.[16] It’s documentary-like feel means it is both informative for the general audience as well as heart-wenching and, at some points, purposefully comical. It’s key themes of class and national identity are both issues which were very current during the 1950s at the time of its production and while it can be seen to be class biased, this is in part due to the nature of when it was produced. National pride can be seen to be radiating from this film, despite the event it depicts being a maritime disaster for Britain, as the way people came together in the face of the disaster is clearly apparent. While many have likely never seen A Night to Remember, likely opting for the far more modern and romantic Titanic film directed by Cameron, this film is a firm classic, one that is a must watch for film fanatics and history buffs alike. 


[1] Roy Baker, A Night to Remember, DVD (Rank Film Distributors, 1958)

[2] Sarah Street, “Questions of Authenticity and Realism in A Night to Remember (1958)”, in The Titanic in myth and memory: representations in visual and literary culture ed. Tim Bergfelder and Sarah Street (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 143

[3] Richard Howells, “One Hundred Years of the Titanic on Film,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 32, no. 1 (2012): 84

[4] Sue Harper and Vincent Porter, eds, British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 1 

[5] Roy Baker, A Night to Remember

[6] Richard Howells, “Atlantic Crossings: Nation, Class and Identity in Titanic (1953) and A Night to Remember (1958),” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 19, no. 4 (1999): 429 

[7] Jeffery Richards, A Night to Remember: The definitive Titanic film (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), 60 

[8] Roy Baker, A Night to Remember

[9] Jeffery Richards, Film and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad’s Army (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 130

[10] Richards, A Night to Remember, 76

[11] Roy Baker, A Night to Remember

[12] Howells, “Atlantic Crossings,” 425

[13] Richards, A Night to Remember, 85

[14] Harper and Porter, British Cinema of the 1950s, 54

[15] “A Night to Remember (1958),” IMDb, last accessed 21 March 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051994/

[16] Howells, “One Hundred Years of the Titanic on Film,” 83

[Image 1] “A Night to Remember (1958),” IMDb, last accessed 21 March 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051994/

[Inage 2] Photograph by Norman Gryspeerdt, The Rank Organisation, “A Night to Remember (1958),” IMDb, last accessed 21 March 2021, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051994/mediaviewer/rm4128685313/

[Inage 3] “The Second Officer who survived Titanic and saved 130 lives at Dunkirk,” Sky History, last accessed 21 March 2021, https://www.history.co.uk/article/the-second-officer-who-survived-titanic-and-saved-130-lives-at-dunkirk

[Inage 4] Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart, “RMS Titanic,” last accessed 21 March 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RMS_Titanic_3.jpg


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s