Let’s just get straight to the point: this is not really much of a “Titanic movie” despite its title and the focus of the story. It is more of a drama that just happens to take place aboard the doomed ocean liner. For that reason, certain historical inaccuracies and omissions can be ignored, though not entirely forgiven. There are various moments during the film when we forget there is even a Titanic at all. However, due to the strength of the script and acting, it serves to make the striking of the iceberg as much of a shock to us as it was to the passengers in real life. Unlike A Night to Remember and the later James Cameron version, there are no signs of impending doom anywhere in the story. No hints dropped, no melodramatic self-fulfilling prophecies hidden within the layers. Yes, we all know how it ends, but many disaster movies tend to keep that certain cloud of doom around us at all times. This 1953 Titanic plows through both sea and screen in blissful ignorance.
For years I maintained that A Night to Remember was the best Titanic movie. I never much cared for the Cameron version at all. Roy Ward Baker’s film has it all—strong acting and sets and a meticulous attention to detail and accuracy. I believe in an earlier review I gave it a 9-rating. What this one manages to do better is illustrate the tragedy with more feelings and drama. The script is brilliant. Utterly brilliant from start to finish. The struggling husband and wife team of Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck mesmerize with a screen presence which is hard to describe. They appear on the verge of divorce, yet through their arguments and bickering we can tell there is still love between them. She wants to take their children to live in America (the whole family is from there originally) away from her husband’s desire to have them raised in luxury in Paris. He sneaks on the boat to try to stop her and attempt to make up. The wife also reveals to him that the son he loves so much is not really his child, whom he then wants to disown in a spur of anger. Webb’s character is not yet likable, but we can see some hidden kindness there which keeps us on his side. Also worked into the story is a defrocked priest (Richard Basehart) en route to America from a hearing in Rome. He is an alcoholic, depressed at the fact he failed the priesthood, and is returning to his family.
As for what we are missing, there is no Thomas Andrews, J. Bruce Ismay, or Molly Brown (though there is a similar character played by Thelma Ritter for conflict reasons with her estate about a portrayal). The sets are not entirely accurate, and there are some aspects of the sinking which did not occur. A siren blares away every two or three seconds for the entire final act of the film as the ship is sinking and lifeboats are being lowered. While this is not accurate at all, it does add an eeriness and sense of emergency to the atmosphere. My only real quarrel with the film is the sinking itself. The special effects are fine, but it seems so dragged out. There is no urgency and little desperation at those final moments. No shots of people running around to a higher position trampling over each other. No last-second insanity and screaming. Instead these characters are more resigned to accept their fates and sing along with the band’s playing of “Nearer my God to Thee”. Prior to this, the band plays “Danny Boy”—a heartbreaking addition to a film which is now causing your eyes to water.
The conversation as Webb casts Stanwyck away into her lifeboat is a myriad of missed opportunities and tragedy. Their love manages to return for a brief moment. He comforts her by saying everything will be fine and his lifeboat is located on the other side of the ship. She thanks him for lying to her and asks him what went wrong between them. He responds, “We have no time to catalog our regrets. All we can do is pretend 20 years didn’t happen. It’s June again. You were walking under some Elm trees in a white muslin dress, the loveliest creature I ever laid eyes on. That summer, when I asked you to marry me, I pledged my eternal devotion. I would take it as a very great favor Julia, if you would accept a restatement of that pledge.” Moments before that, his character is a little saltier, telling his friend bluntly, “We may be having sand for supper tonight.” There will not be a dry eye left at the conclusion of the film, when Webb embraces the son he wanted to disown for not being his and tells him how much he loves him and how he is proud of him. It was this 13 year-old son who gave up his seat on a lifeboat so a lady could take it instead.
Titanic, with all of its inaccuracies aside, is a wonderful tragedy. The script ranges from witty and intelligent to somber and heartbreaking. The special effects of the ship are decent, and the scene where it hits the iceberg is better than A Night to Remember’s. Obviously, I wish there was a bit more attention to detail, but the rest of it just works so well. The main characters are developed fantastically, and we feel as if we know their life stories by just a few conversations. The focus of the film is mostly on the first class passengers, which some may have a problem with, but you will be so engrossed that it will hardly matter. The Oscar for best screenplay (Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen) was awarded to this movie, and it is well-deserved. It was also nominated for best set decoration, but I feel like it should have at least been nominated for best picture. Webb and Stanwyck should also have had some recognition. Also starring Brian Aherne as Captain Smith, Robert Wagner, and Audra Dalton. Directed by Jean Negulesco.
9 out of 10 stars.