TCM Fest: 'A Night to Remember' marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy

Posted by · 12:07 am · April 15th, 2012

About the time a full crowd of TCM Classic Film Festival-goers began filling one of the smaller theaters at Mann’s Chinese multiplex this evening, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic (9:20pm ET, April 14, 1912) came and went. The occasion: a screening of a newly restored version of Roy Ward Baker’s “A Night to Remember,” the 1958 British production dramatizing (though nevertheless capturing in minute detail) the harrowing, historic event.

It’s been a bit of a slow slog for me with the fest this year and I’ve already missed a few of the things I wanted to catch because of various reasons, but I really wanted to be there for this. I had never actually seen the film and it seemed a good way to, I don’t know, take stock of the anniversary. And I have to say, it’s a fantastic film. I was kind of blown away by it and its impressive miniature effects, its swift but touching handling of the human drama, and I was also very intrigued that James Cameron’s “Titanic” follows it so closely.

Both films take very detailed steps toward painting an accurate portrait based on historic record, so naturally there would be overlap, but I was still surprised at how the imagery and the interpretations of this and that beat were so similar. Mostly, though, I was greatly moved by both the spectacle and the humanity of Baker’s film (much as I was and still am Cameron’s).

I also found myself waiting for the ship to break as the stern rose into the night sky, but then it occurred to me that of course that wasn’t going to happen. This was a time when even eyewitness accounts of the ship’s breaking in two were disavowed as misremembered, exaggerated or sensationalized. It wasn’t until Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985, two pieces of the ship lying a third of a mile apart, that people — like tonight’s special guest, Titanic historian Don Lynch — had to eat their words and give up the romanticized idea of the “unsinkable” ship still maintaining its assemblage as it plummeted to the bottom of the Atlantic.

That having been said, the image of the Titanic diving into the water, unbroken, almost stubbornly in tact, is nearly as arresting as Cameron’s more accurate depiction of it breaking apart. (Though if you watched that National Geographic special — “The Final Word” — featuring Cameron’s updated analysis, you know that even the severity of angle depicted in “Titanic” was, it turns out, too dramatic and that it was more of a 19 or 20 degree angle before snapping and then kind of gliding underneath.)

Lynch stuck around for a Q&A afterward, tossing around his decades of knowledge on the subject with spirit and passion. He is the co-author of both “Titanic: An Illustrated History” and “Ghosts of the Abyss” and was part of Cameron’s ace team of technical advisors on the 1997 film (in which he also had a small role). Additionally, he provided commentary for the Criterion release of “A Night to Remember.”

As it turns out, the night wasn’t just an anniversary of solemn note. Saturday was also Turner Classic Movies’ 18th birthday, celebrating nearly two decades of classic film devotion on TV. I should say that I gravitated toward the channel right around the time I was discovering a passion for film and filmmaking, so it’s meant quite a lot to me over that span of time. Congrats to all involved.

The TCM fest concludes tomorrow with a few more delights, Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and a Cinerama presentation of “How the West was Won” at the Arclight among them.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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