Nearer To Thee: Titanic’s Classic Films



For the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I wanted to revisit its tragic history and some of the classic films inspired by it.

On the ill-fated liner were some of the richest and most privileged individuals in the world alongside the poorest, and in the face of the iceberg all were equalized.

This is the strength of the 1953 Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. At its center is a strained relationship between Julia Sturges and her husband Richard. Julia is fleeing her society-obsessed husband with her two children for a humbler life in Michigan. Her getaway is foiled when Richard learns of this and follows her on board. Webb and Stanwyck are two of classic Hollywood’s brightest stars and they shine as the estranged couple. The tension and genuine sense of heartbreak (most evident in her expressions) is palpable. The emotion and heart-wrenching sense of lost opportunity between them makes the collision that much more wrenching, driving home the human toll of the tragedy. One of the biggest sticking points between them is Julia’s view of his general uselessness outside of social obligations. The biggest blow to Richard prior to the sinking isn’t the dissolution of his marriage but the discovery that his beloved son, the “prize” who will carry on his name, is the product of an affair. Norman idolizes his father, and seeing Richard shut out the child is painful. But when it becomes clear that the ship is going down and many will not survive, Richard steps up in an extraordinary fashion, and his actions during the sinking make this film work. Watching him realize that family, not prestige, are the only things that truly matter in life is just one way in which it serves as a powerful reminder of the best things humanity is capable of in the worst of times. I also defy you not to shed a tear during Richard and Norman’s final moments together.

It took the anniversary to compel me to read Walter Lord’s recounting of the great ship’s final hours, A Night to Remember. His passion for the subject shines in this book’s tightly-plotted recreation of the ship’s final hours and the aftermath. Lord interviewed over sixty survivors, which he incorporated into a blow-by-blow recreation of the tragedy, from the iceberg collision to the Carpathia’s rescue of less than a third of the passengers. His brisk style makes you feel as if you’re watching events unfold, lending the gradually dawning realization of the enormity of the danger a depth and intensity that makes this a page-turner.

A Night to Remember “is really about the last night of a small town,” and by extension the beginning of the end for a way of life. While I’ve always been susceptible to Titanic mystique I never thought about the socio-economic repercussions of the tragedy. From the massively wealthy to the poor, Lord’s convincing argument is that Titanic was the “last stand of wealth and society in the center of public affection.” A way of life, the society of First Class, an air of civility and chivalry, all of that vanished on an icy night in April, rocking the world to its core and paving the way for the unsettled political and socially charged atmosphere of the 20th century.

Lord presents a relatively unvarnished view of events but tells them in such a compelling manner that we never lose sight of the horror and human toll of the disaster. His book is not only a recount of the ship and her time but of the best and worst mankind is capable of, and the dangers of letting the legend eclipse the great human toll, and of what we can learn from the ordinary people on that voyage who found themselves called to do extraordinary things.

Once I finished the book, I moved on to the film. The first thing that struck me was its air of authenticity. Unlike most projects from this era, A Night to Remember has a documentary-style feel with astonishing attention to detail. It stands the test of time and holds up brilliantly today, its understated grace lending it an unparalleled air of realism. It is almost a beat-for-beat, word-for-word visual realization of the book. By focusing on just the facts, it forgoes temptation to embellish events  with fictionalized characters or occurrences. It’s an unmatched visual documentation of the sinking because the writings of so many survivors were still at that time available, lending their invaluable perspective to Lord’s book and the later film.

A Night to Remember does not spend a great deal of time establishing its core cast but instead briefly introduces major roles such as Chairman of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay, builder Thomas Andrews, and Captain Smith. Second Officer Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) stands the closest to the role of a central star. He was the only senior officer to survive and his actions as documented in Lord’s book and this film are nothing short of astounding. Lightoller’s position on the ship is unique in that it is a window into both the crew and passengers’ experiences, since as an officer he could walk in both worlds, and was a critical player in the dispatching of the lifeboats. The performances are excellent, honest, and never give in to the temptation to idealize or vilify individuals. This film showcases both the admirable, best and bravest tendencies in mankind as well as painful moments of mob mentality and outright cowardice. My favorite scenes evoke the genuine pathos of the moment: when a father sees his wife and children into a lifeboat and he and his wife exchange a final look knowing this will be their last… just before the sinking when an elderly steward attempts to comfort a lost child with promises to find his mother, knowing they are about to plunge into icy waters… or when the band acknowledge in silence the futility of escape, instead regrouping and playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

The thing that strikes me most about delving into this material (and that this film drives home really well) is the sense of unreality; disconnect between the impact of the iceberg and the complacency of so many of the passengers. Even the lack of a response by the nearby Californian underscores the fact that a disaster of this magnitude, occurring with this ship, was completely unfathomable. Both the book and film of A Night to Remember reveal not only the disaster and the horrifying, needless loss of life, but the beginning of the end of an era, a devastating crack in mankind’s confidence in themselves and their many accomplishments.

May carefully crafted works like this serve to ever remind us of our past and the best we are capable of when the unthinkable strikes, but perhaps most of all remind us in this very uncertain world where true security lies. In the truth of “Nearer My God to Thee,” may it be ever so. ♥



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