The film's World Premiere was on Thursday, 3 July 1958 at the Odeon Leicester Square. Titanic survivor Elizabeth Dowdell attended the American premiere in New York on Tuesday 16 December 1958. The film received critical acclaim upon release.
The Titanic was built to be the largest vessel afloat and was widely believed to be unsinkable. It included the cream of American and British society. The story of its sinking is told from the point of view of her passengers and crew, principally Second Officer Charles Lightoller.
In the open sea on its maiden voyage, the ship receives a number of ice warnings from other steamers. Only a few of the messages are relayed to Captain Edward J. Smith, who orders a lookout but does not slow the ship or consider an alternate route.
Late on 14 April 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet spots an iceberg in front of the ship. The vessel turns to port but collides with the iceberg on its starboard side. Thomas Andrews, the ship's builder, determines that the ship will sink within two hours, and it lacks sufficient lifeboat capacity for everyone on board.
A distress signal is sent out, and efforts begin to signal the SS Californian, visible on the horizon 10 miles away. But its radio operator is off duty and does not hear the distress signal. Fortunately, the radio operator on the RMS Carpathia receives the distress call and alerts Captain Arthur Rostron, who orders the ship to head to the site. Unfortunately, the ship will take around four hours to reach the Titanic. Meanwhile, the Californian remains where it is, the crew failing to comprehend why the large ship they are in sight of is firing rockets.
Captain Smith orders Officers Lightoller and William Murdoch to start lowering the lifeboats. Many women and children are reluctant to board, and Murdoch and Lightoller force them in. Many men try to sneak on board, but Lightoller will not allow them. Murdoch, working the other side of the ship, is more accommodating to men. As the stewards struggle to hold back women and children in third-class, most of those from first- and second-class board the lifeboats and launch away from the ship. Joseph Ismay, the president of the White Star Line, gets off the ship when he wasn't meant to and cries as he watches her sink.
The Titanic sinks amid much chaos on the deck, with third-class passengers allowed up from below only after all the lifeboats have gone. The bow submerges, and only two collapsible lifeboats are left. Lightoller and other able seamen struggle to untie them. The ship's band plays a final song as Andrews and Smith decide to go down with the ship and die during the sinking. the ship's lights flicker off, then the last funnel collapse and kills the young Clark couple. Lightoller and many others are swept off the ship. The passengers still on board pray as the ship sinks.
Many men and some women and children die of hypothermia or drowning. One of the overturned collapsible boats is floating, so Lightoller and a few more men balance on it and wait. Chief Baker Charles Joughin is found in the water, not minding the cold because he's been drinking, and is pulled onto the boat. Lightoller spots another boat, and the men are saved. The Carpathia comes and rescues the survivors.
On the Carpathia, Lightoller is told by Rostron that only 705 have survived, and the ship has only passed one body. The wireless operator comes on deck to inform Rostron that the Californian has just heard about Titanic's sinking and wants to help. Rostron says anything that was humanly possible has been done.
The film's epilogue states that the passengers and crew of the Titanic have not died in vain, as today ships reflect lessons learned: they are equipped with lifeboats for all and an unceasing radio vigil, and the International Ice Patrol guards the sea lanes, making them safe for the peoples of the world.
Cast notes:Gordon Holdom - baritone, sang the song "Nearer, My God, to Thee" dubbed.
Desmond Llewelyn makes an uncredited appearance as a crew member reassuring the panicking steerage passengers
Peter Burton makes an appearance as a steward.
Bernard Fox, who appears as Lookout Frederick Fleet and utters the famous words, "Iceberg, dead ahead, sir", also appears as Colonel Archibald Gracie IV in Titanic (1997), making him a cast member of two films about the sinking of the Titanic.
Norman Rossington plays a steward who loses his temper with non-English speaking passengers just after the collision. Rossington 20 years later played the Sergeant-at-Arms in SOS Titanic (1979).
Jeremy Bulloch (well known for his portrayal of Boba Fett in Star Wars) makes an uncredited appearance as a boy jumping into water.
Derren Nesbitt and Stratford Johns appear uncredited as survivors on the upturned lifeboat.
Frank Lawton, who plays J. Bruce Ismay, previously starred in 1933's Cavalcade, which also prominently featured the Titanic.
The film is based on Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember (1955), but in Ray Johnson’s documentary The Making of 'A Night to Remember' (1993), Lord says that when he wrote his book, there was no mass interest in the Titanic, and he was the first writer in four decades to attempt a grand-scale history of the disaster, synthesizing written sources and survivors’ firsthand accounts. Lord dated the genesis of his interest in the subject to childhood. So did producer MacQuitty, who, as a boy of six, watched the Titanic set out from Belfast, as well as screenwriter Ambler, who was a lad in London when the ship was launched.
Producer MacQuitty had originally contracted with Shaw, Savill & Albion Line to use its former flagship QSMV Dominion Monarch to shoot scenes for the film, but the company pulled out of the production at the last minute, citing that they did not want to use one of their liners to recreate the Titanic sinking. However, according to MacQuitty, the Shaw Savill Line at the time was managed by Basil Sanderson, son of Harold Sanderson, the White Star Line's director in the U.S. at the time of the sinking. Harold Sanderson would later succeed J. Bruce Ismay as president of the International Mercantile Marine Company, J.P. Morgan's shipping conglomerate that owned the White Star Line. This connection to White Star, according to MacQuitty, is what actually led the Shaw Savill Line to pull out of the film. MacQuitty eventually got permission from Ship Breaking Industries in Faslane, Scotland to film scenes aboard RMS Asturias, a 1920s ocean liner that the company was scrapping. The liner's port side had been demolished, but its starboard was still intact, and so MacQuitty got art students to paint the liner the White Star Line colors and used mirrors to recreate scenes that took place on the port side.
In addition to basing the script — both in action and dialogue — on Lord's book, the filmmakers achieved nuanced performances and authentic atmosphere by consulting several actual Titanic survivors who served as technical advisors. Among them were Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, and passengers Edith Russell and Lawrence Beesley. Boxhall and Russell were also portrayed in the movie. One day during shooting Beesley infiltrated the set but was discovered by the director, who ordered him off; thus, as Julian Barnes puts it, "for the second time in his life, Beesley left the Titanic just before it was due to go down." Charles Lightoller's widow Sylvia Lightoller was also consulted during production, at one point visiting Pinewood Studios and meeting with Kenneth More, whom she introduced to her children on set. Sylvia commended More for the role of her husband, and praised the film's historical accuracy in an interview with The Guardian, stating "The film is really the truth and has not been embroidered,"
Kenneth More recalled the production of the film in his autobiography, published 20 years later in 1978. There was no tank big enough at Pinewood Studios to film the survivors struggling to climb into lifeboats, so it was done in the open-air swimming bath at Ruislip Lido, at 2:00am on an icy November morning. When the extras refused to jump in, More realised he would have to set an example. He called out: "Come on!"
I leaped. Never have I experienced such cold in all my life. It was like jumping into a deep freeze. The shock forced the breath out of my body. My heart seemed to stop beating. I felt crushed, unable to think. I had rigor mortis, without the mortis. And then I surfaced, spat out the dirty water and, gasping for breath, found my voice.
'Stop!' I shouted. "Don't listen to me! It's bloody awful! Stay where you are!
The character of the baker, seen drinking after giving up his seat in a lifeboat to a female passenger, is based on Chief Baker Charles Joughin who, on that night, drank some whisky, threw deck chairs overboard, rode the stern all the way down, swam in the freezing water for hours, was eventually picked up by the overturned collapsible boat B, and survived the disaster.
During the sinking, a steward pauses as he flees through the first-class smoking room to ask ship's designer Thomas Andrews, "Aren't you even going to try for it, Mr Andrews?" This sequence was replicated essentially word-for-word in Titanic (1997), substituting that film's protagonists Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater instead of the steward. The scene was also repeated in S.O.S. Titanic, with a stewardess asking him if he will save himself, pointing out that there would be questions that only he could answer.
Four clips from the Nazi propaganda film Titanic (1943) were used in A Night to Remember; two of the ship sailing in calm waters during the day, and two of a flooding walkway in the engine room. As Brian Hawkins writes: the British came closest "to the Titanic truth in 1958 with their black-and-white production of Walter Lord's novel A Night to Remember, seamlessly incorporating sequences from director Herbert Selpin's 1943 (Nazi) Titanic without giving any screen credits for these incredible scenes." Selpin himself was executed by Goebbels over the course of production in early August 1942, for offering a negative opinion of the German military while directing this earlier Nazi era film.
Of note are some historical inaccuracies:
The first scene of A Night to Remember depicts the christening of the ship at its launch. However, the Titanic was never christened, as it was not the practice of the White Star Line to stand on this sort of ceremony. This has come down in popular lore as one of the many contributing factors to the ship's "bad luck".
As with most films about the Titanic made before the discovery of the wreck in 1985, the film portrays the ship as sinking in one piece, when in fact, the Titanic broke into two pieces as it sank. This is because people did not believe that Titanic split. Even though survivors remember seeing the ship split, White Star Line denied it, as if it was true, the public would not think the Olympic-Class liners were structurally sound. The split was proven in 1985 when the bow and stern were found in two pieces, about a third of a mile (600 m) apart, at a depth of about 12,500 feet (3,800 m).
The crew, including Captain Smith is depicted having a full trust in the Titanic, considering her "unsinkable", an allegation which was never claimed with such a certainty.
Upon its December 1958 U.S. premiere, Bosley Crowther called the film a "tense, exciting and supremely awesome drama...[that] puts the story of the great disaster in simple human terms and yet brings it all into a drama of monumental unity and scope"; according to Crowther:
"this remarkable picture is a brilliant and moving account of the behavior of the people on the Titanic on that night that should never be forgotten. It is an account of the casualness and flippancy of most of the people right after the great ship has struck (even though an ominous cascade of water is pouring into her bowels); of the slow accumulation of panic that finally mounts to a human holocaust, of shockingly ugly bits of baseness and of wonderfully brave and noble deeds."
The film was a relative disappointment at the box office. However, it received critical acclaim. A Night to Remember won the 1959 "Samuel Goldwyn International Award" for the UK at the Golden Globe Awards. The film currently has a "certified fresh" score of 100%. It still receives praise. It is considered "the best Titanic film before Titanic (1997)" and "the most accurate of all Titanic films" and "the definitive Titanic tale", especially for its social realism, reflecting, in the words of one critic, "the overwhelming historical evidence that the class rigidity of 1912, for all its defects, produced a genuine sense of behavioural obligation on the Titanic among rich and poor alike; that the greatest number of people aboard faced death or hardship with a stoic and selfless grace that the world has wondered at for most of this century." Although it won numerous awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film and received high praise from reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic, it was at best only a modest commercial success due to its original huge budget and a relatively poor impact in America. It has nonetheless aged well; the film has considerable artistic merit and, according to Professor Paul Heyer, it helped to spark the wave of disaster films that included The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Heyer comments that it "still stands as the definitive cinematic telling of the story and the prototype and finest example of the disaster-film genre."
A Night to Remember is one of the Criterion Collection's early titles. A high definition upgrade of the DVD and a Blu-ray edition were released on 27 March 2012.