It has been over one hundred years since the Titanic disaster, and people are still fascinated by the ship and her fate. Lord’s classic account of the sinking is still noteworthy for the painstaking detail, much of it based on eyewitness accounts by survivors still alive in 1955. Step by step, he takes us through the events of that night, starting with the lookouts who didn’t see the iceberg in time because the binoculars they were supposed to be using were locked in a chest and the key was in London. (The result of a last-minute change in the officers assigned to the ship.)
We hear from people from all three passenger classes – the very wealthy, the middle class, and the lowly immigrants – and crew members from the officers to humble stewards. Though at times the book reads like fiction, it is not. He did an impressive amount of research which is detailed in the Acknowledgements section at the end. From the retrospective of the 21st century, the book represents an impressive undertaking in a world of print-only resources.
I also rented the film, produced in 1958, but it wasn’t the movie I remembered from my childhood. That one was Titanic, starring Clifton Webb, which came out two years before Lord’s book. The film version of A Night To Remember is a British production starring Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller and a young David McCallum as Officer Lord. I was surprised at first to realize A Night To Remember was filmed in black and white, but I soon understood why. By not using color, they were able to mix archival footage of the actual ship with the movie reels. So we see the Titanic being christened and sailing off from Southampton as it really happened. There was no such thing as CGI in 1958!
For the best sense of what it might have been like to actually be on the Titanic, nothing can beat James Cameron’s 1997 epic. Like the fictional love story or despise it, the special effects are overwhelming and incredible. In my opinion, it deserved the Oscar simply for being a monumental and innovative piece of moviemaking. And the musical score is both beautiful and haunting.
After reading A Night To Remember, I think I understand why the story of the Titanic still draws us. It was one of the greatest disasters of all time, and it changed maritime history (and law) forever. But at its heart, it’s a very human story– of arrogance and hubris, negligence, bad luck and denial, bravery and cowardice, indifference and sacrifice. A testament to the bad and the good to be found in human nature. And for that reason, it is a story that will live forever in human memory.
At the end of a recent documentary on the Titanic, James Cameron talks about the ship as a microcosm of 1912 society, with its class distinctions. He also sees the image of the unwieldy ship sailing into the iceberg as a metaphor for a continent about to go over a cliff and into one of the most destructive and unnecessary wars of all time. (WWI) And then he talked about how things are not much different now. We are headed for an iceberg called “global climate change” and it’s too late to correct the system in time to prevent the crash.
If you haven’t read this book, I do recommend it.
Disclaimer: This review of Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember was first posted at my old Flights-a-Fancy blog on 6/6/12, and I’ve decided to recycle it today.