It’s cinema lore that James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster version of this story played to empty screens in Southampton; presumably the superstitious locals felt that 85 years was still ‘too soon’. The story had been told before, notably in A Night to Remember, but S.O.S. Titanic’s colour version from 1979 was first shown on ABC television, despite having a cast that would be the envy of a cinema film; Ian Holm, Helen Mirren and a large raft of familiar faces make up the manifest, and even if the first hour is soapy and the effects are not up to snuff, there’s such a strong narrative pull to the subject that the last hour is comparable to Cameron’s re-telling.
My previous attempt to view the film on Amazon Prime felt like a minor disaster at the time; the ‘strained-through-soup’ VHS quality appearance of the film rendered it unwatchable, but a restored print turned up in Studio Canal’s archive, and beckoned for a return visit. Rather than one romantic couple, like Jack and Kate, there’s slew of them here, and the romance between school-teachers Lawrence Beesley (David Warner, who also featured in Cameron’s version) and Leigh Goodwin (Susan St James) is well caught; there’s a well of pathos that ship-board romances tap into when you know peril is imminent. Harry Andrews makes a suitably imposing captain, with Holm offering a hissable portrait of selfishness and irresponsibility as a White Star Line director who doesn’t fancy going down with his own shipping line’s craft. Mirren also makes an impression as a stewardess; one assumes that the expanded 144 minute version gives her more to go on. Less impressive is David Janssen as John Jacob Astor IV, with the tv star rather out of his comfort zone, and the interiors, filmed on dry land, lack windows or any sense of being on an actual ship.
Dubbed a ‘thinking man’s disaster film’, S.O.S. Titanic is watchable today largely through the unshowy approach of writer James Costigan and director William Hale, who wisely relegate the terrible effects work to the side-lines; the Titanic appears various different sizes, appearing bright pink in some shots and fluorescent green in others. Moments resonate; a child sitting on a staircase as the house band play on, or a baby abandoned in a doorway. Cloris Leachman makes for a spindly but no less personable Molly Brown, Aubrey Morris a perfect steward under fire, and with a focus on the efforts of the RMS Carpathian to rescue the passengers, the film ends in some style with sightings of the massive dome of Phillip Stone, just before his key role in The Shining.
It’s surreal watching disaster movies in a pandemic; more people died this morning (Dec 2020) in the US alone than died in on the Titanic, and they barely rate a mention on the news; one fears for the future when we can ignore such statistics. But there’s a reason that this story gets filmed over and over again; no-one, no matter how rich or seemingly invulnerable, is above nature’s laws, and there’s a fascination is watching the fictional and factual characters go down with their ship. S.O.S. Titanic may not be the definitive version of this tragedy, but offers a dialogue-heavy, character driven alternative to Cameron’s thrill-ride interpretation.
Thanks to Studio Canal for access to this restored version.