MOVIE MEMORIES: Braving danger as classic disaster flicks are fondly recalled

Hello again fans of the silver screen, my latest ‘Movie Memories’ article for Lanarkshire Live is dedicated, with loving memory, to Georgina Purchase nee Murdoch and her daughters Jenny and Edith.

Early on the morning of April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, with 1200 people killed on that fateful night.

It is the most discussed and documented maritime disaster in the history of the 20th century so, inevitably, Hollywood looked to adapt the tragic story.

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titanica (1953) was the first movie version of the event. Produced by 20th Century Fox, it stars Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.

The film is fondly regarded by titanica historians and survivors as the definitive cinematic telling of the story for its accuracy, compared with the 1997 big-budget blockbuster titanica .

A Night To Remember (1958), produced by The Rank Organisation, is an extraordinary flick that gives a magnificent account of the titanica tragedy, and consolidated Rank’s position as the most prestigious producer of British cinematic entertainment.

Based on the 1955 book A Night To Remember by Walter Lord, it’s a story about real people in a tragic situation. Lord extensively interviewed 64 survivors from the actual Titanic for his meticulously researched book about him.

William MacQuitty, the producer of A Night To Remember was born in Belfast, where the titanica was being built. As a boy of six, he had seen a team of horses hauling one of the Titanic’s giant propellers through the Ulster streets. When he read Lord’s book more than 40 years later, he knew he had to make the movie.

Rank were not keen on the idea when MacQuitty first proposed it, but he finally convinced them when he stated, passionately and directly, that the story was really about the end of a societal era of arrogance and class.

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Based on Walter Lord’s book, ‘A Night To Remember’ is a story about real people in a tragic situation

MacQuitty, scriptwriter Eric Ambler, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth and director Roy Ward Baker strove for accuracy and A Night To Remember would become the most expensive film the Rank Organization had ever made, up until 1958.

Technology wasn’t available then to create computer-generated shots. Filmmakers in those days relied on model miniatures and the construction of massive sets.

The entire midsection of the ship – four lifeboat stations and two huge funnels – were built on the Pinewood studios lot under the supervision of art director Alex Vetchinsky and John Boxall, who had been the fourth officer on the titanica , serving as technical adviser. The film crew used the Asturias an Australian ship that was being scrapped, to double for the titanica for the lifeboat launchings and abandon ship scenes.

Interestingly, the interior sets were constructed on a kind of jig that would allow the crew to tilt to whatever angle the script called for, simulating the titanica taking on water and tilting to one side.

When the sets moved they creaked in a way that was very reminiscent of a real ship. In fact, the groaning of the titanica you hear on the soundtrack is the recorded creaking of the sets as they were tilted.

We see the disaster from the viewpoint of one of the tragedy’s heroes, Charles Lightroller , played by British actor Kenneth More. Also among the cast are Laurence Naismith as Captain Smith and Honor Blackman as one of the survivors.

Similarly to Lord’s book, we don’t focus on one or two characters, real or imagined. Instead, we learn about a large number of people by witnessing what they actually did.

It is a tribute to this classic film that its story about fate and chaos and loss of life is able to keep track of so many souls and give them all enough time on screen for us to identify and appreciate their quest for life or their ultimate sacrifice .

In his 1978 autobiography, Kenneth More recalled a memorable during production: “There was no tank big enough at Pinewood studios to film the survivors struggling to climb into lifeboats, so it was filmed in the open air morning at Ruislip Reservoir near London, at 2am on a very icy November morning.

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“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.”

When Georgina Purchase told me about this fantastic movie about a big ship sinking showing at the Pavilion Cinema in the summer of 1958, I couldn’t wait to see it and, for both of us, it became a life-long favourite.

A Night To Remember was a box office hit and received critical acclaim.

The seventies introduced a unique trend in filmmaking – the big-budget, big stars disaster suspense movies.

The Best Picture Academy Award winner Airport (1970) was the first of four airplane disaster films produced by Universal Pictures, along with Airport 75 , Airport 77 and Airport 80: The Concorde .

Big disaster movies meant big box office; Earthquake (1974) was the highest-grossing film of that year.

By 1970, 20th Century Fox had started to come out of a dark period after a series of flops – but it needed all the hits it could get.

Producer Irwin Allen was about to hand them one of their biggest. The creator of such fabulous television classics as Lost In Space , The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants which offered a glimpse into Allen’s fantasy world, made fantastic contributions to an industry he loved.

As a young boy, I was fascinated and thrilled by the marvelous Fox Cinemascope pictures presented at the Pavilion Cinema in Airdrie, like The Lost World (1960), Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Jules Verne’s Five Weeks In A Balloon (1962).

Parts of ‘The Poseidon Adventure’s’ exterior scenes were filmed aboard the RMS Queen Mary, berthed in Long Beach California

The name Irwin Allen became synonymous with marvelous escapist fantasy entertainment.

The Poseidon Adventure had its world premiere at the newly opened National Theater in New York’s Times Square on December 12, 1972, and would become the biggest hit of 1973.

It won two Academy Awards, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song for The Morning After .

The Poseidon Adventure has become a cult film, spotlighting the brilliant cast of Academy Award winners, Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons.

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The role of Nonnie played by Carol Lynley, was offered to Petula Clark but she turned it down.

Parts of the film’s exterior scenes were filmed aboard the RMS Queen Mary berthed in Long Beach California.

Paul Gallico had been inspired to write The Poseidon Adventure novel after a vacation aboard this ship in 1936 when it was rocked by huge waves and almost came close to capsizing.

The book caught the attention of Allen, who thought the story would make a top-notch feature film, and he bought the movie rights.

The story erupts at midnight on New Years’ Eve when the passenger liner SS Poseidon is struck by a 90-foot tidal wave which is the result of an earthquake beneath the sea.

‘The Poseidon Adventure’ had a “brilliant cast” including Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelly Winters

The ship capsizes in a dramatic sequence that has the entire cast tossing about as the ship turns over. Passengers and crew are trapped upside down inside, and a preacher attempts to lead a small group of survivors to safety.

Actress Carol Lynley recalled: “Filming of The Poseidon Adventure took 14 weeks. The cast spent most of the time immersed in water or surrounded by fire, explosions, and steam on some of the most incredible sets ever constructed at 20th Century Fox Studios.

“It was extremely dangerous and very, very rough. The actors were asked to do much of the stunt work themselves, except for some of the riskier efforts.

“We were soaking wet and filthy for three-and-a-half months. There was no computer technology then so everything you see in this movie is real.”

Allen followed up ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ with 1974’s ‘The Towering Inferno’

The Poseidon Adventure remains a fantastic movie experience for the whole family.

It was followed by Allen’s production of The Towering Inferno which became the biggest ticket-seller of 1974.

Allen was a commodity to be reckoned with. He produced harrowing adventure tales in the grandest fashion only he could imagine. He was a legend in Hollywood and helped change the way movies are made.

The film industry could use someone like him today in a time when one hears so much about huge budgets and mediocre actors but seldom anything about elevating the standard of movies.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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