Directed by William Hale
Written by James Costigan
The disaster film in the 1970s was never keen on using real history as a backdrop for its experiential thrills. I doubt there was any particular hand-wringing involved in this; the likeliest explanation is that the disaster filmmakers of the 70s simply wanted to have complete control over the narrative and aesthetic dimensions of their catastrophes. Whatever the reason, despite twenty-odd theatrically-released American disaster films throughout the decade, the only one to claim a basis in true events was 1975's The Hindenburg.
Yet in 1979, in the midst of the genre's collapse, Britain's EMI Films gave the ur-tragedy of the true story disaster flick its moment in the sun. Enterprising early filmmakers had been making movies about the Titanic since before carrion-feeders had even picked its victims' bodies clean: the very first was an autobiographical one-reeler starring and co-written by actress, Belle Époque influencer, and actual Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson, released but only 31 days after the sinking. As for this retelling of those events, S.O.S. Titanic, it would never be theatrically released in the States. It did get a theatrical release in Britain and Europe in 1980; but we don't count that, and, unfortunately, it signifies our return to the trenches of disaster cinema on the small screen, for despite its fundamental Britishness, it appears to have been made expressly to be sold to American television. Thus it aired on ABC on September 23rd, 1979, making just enough of an impression that if you reminded someone that, actually, there is a feature-length treatment of the Titanic disaster between 1958's A Night to Remember and James Cameron's 1997 epic, they might not punch you in the face for it.
If we do include it on the list of features to deal with the sinking, then, S.O.S. Titanic is either the fourth or the fifth, depending on how you count Britain's 1929 effort Atlantic, which was sued by the White Star Line to keep the Titanic's name out of it. (Likewise, depending on how you count The Unsinkable Molly Brown, it might be the sixth; but you should not count The Unsinkable Molly Brown.) Besides Atlantic, then, its predecessors number three: the 1943 Titanic made in Nazi Germany as bizarrely-conceived propaganda, the first feature ever made about a ship actually called "Titanic"; Jean Negulesco's outstanding 1953 Titanic for Hollywood; and the aforementioned Night To Remember, also a product of Britain.
I've seen all these, so I can say that S.O.S. Titanic was not, in truth, the worst cinematic version of the Titanic story that had yet been made. But this is only true if we do, in fact, consider Atlantic to be a "movie about the Titanic." If we don't, it leaves us a tantalizing rhetorical avenue for claiming, no, S.O.S. Titanic actually is the worst. (And even Atlantic has the excuse of being made at the advent of sound: I have rarely seen a more forceful reminder that folks just forgot how to make movies for several years, but its problems are hardly unique.) The frustrating thing about S.O.S. Titanic, anyway, is that it is never "bad" in some overt, self-evidently horrible way. At no point, for instance, does a rapping dog enter the picture. It would perhaps have been a relief if it had. To the extent it has any analogous scene—one involving an old rake taking an uncertain Molly Brown (Cloris Leachman) through a daring tango—this is possibly its best scene.
Its chiefest value, really, is that it obliged me to acquaint myself with the history of Titanic on film. It's damning that all of its predecessors—maybe even Atlantic in its horrid brokenness—would be more interesting to talk about. Whatever their sins (and one, of course, was actually forged in the dream factories of evil), every proper Titanic movie to come before had something to recommend it: the 1953 film serves up enough marital melodrama it could've been a perfectly good movie even if it'd been set on the Olympic, and it develops a certain queasy fascination with the masculine virtue of "women and children first"; A Night To Remember, meanwhile, is hard-nosed procedure, giving but an impressionistic overview of the passengers and crew before arriving upon the fateful iceberg and diving into the disaster with docudrama zeal; even the Nazi one at least has a point of view, spinning a batshit insane conspiracy yarn about stock manipulation and the Titanic's malign capitalist owners.
S.O.S. Titanic only wants you to think it has a point of view, and doesn't even want that very hard; the best it can do is a couple of bland disquisitions upon the class divisions of society as reflected in the shipboard hierarchy. The film's actually "about" this so little that you may not realize "class" is a theme (let alone a structural scheme!) till you read it was supposed to be on the film's Wikipedia page. What it feels like is filling the dead air that constitutes most of a numbingly-long 144 minutes. (For completeness's sake, I did screen the longer, television cut, so that one's my fault.) I never knew that you could fuck up the sinking of the Titanic, but here we are: a movie about 1500 people dying that's boring.
It starts out intriguingly enough; in fact, it begins at the end. On the morning of April 15th, 1912, lifeboats reach the Carpathia, and we spy the faces of some of our survivors as they clamber aboard, though the one we settle on is Bruce Ismay (Ian Holm), that is, the chairman of the White Star Line, a man who survived when most of his passengers and employees died, and whose face is a wrought-iron mask of agonized guilt over this fact. Ismay stares at the water, occasionally ranting as he identifies a piece of flotsam from the Titanic in delusional hopes that it is another survivor, and, eventually, his gaze settles upon the horizon and he remembers...
Well, that's certainly what this indifferently-made film's cinematic language is telling us, and while it would be unfair to expect a Titanic film to present a genuinely rigorous exploration of the sinking from the sole perspective of Bruce Ismay, if you think that its apparent flashback structure (or director William Hale's thoughtlessly-heavy insistence upon Ismay's forlorn look as the very last image we see before transitioning to the Titanic's April 10th departure from Belfast) means that we'll actually be spending any appreciable amount of those intervening four days with the White Star executive, then you'd be wrong. I think Holm has three scenes, counting the one where Capt. Smith (Harry Andrews) glowers at him for accepting a spot on a lifeboat. S.O.S. Titanic never seeks out any substitute protagonist. It instead lightly touches on a kaleidoscopic array of historical figures, but at 144 minutes—nearly 100 of which elapse before the collision, so not even that much of this movie is about the disaster—these "figures" probably did need, at some point, to become "characters."
The closest S.O.S. Titanic gets to having "a center" is in the form of the relationship between British schoolmaster Lawrence Beesley (David Warner) and the only member of the cast I'm certain is fictional, an American teacher named Leigh Goodwin (Susan St. James). Their duty is to engage in a bloodless and tentative courtship, based principally on both of them being bookish nerds who have no desire to socialize with other passengers. So the closest it gets to a successful center is with wealthy divorcé John Astor (David Janssen, whose beard gives him the mien of a lycanthrope mid-transformation) and his new, younger bride Madeleine Astor neé Talmage (Beverly Ross), their union presented as something of a scandal amongst John's peers; this winds up having actual psychological dimensions, between John's worries that he genuinely is too old and decrepit for his new wife and Madeleine's determination that she'll fill any void she's created in John's life with love and children.
So, obviously we're bound to spend the plurality of our time with the schoolteachers having awkward social issues conversations that end in a resolution not to fuck, which might have still been modestly-investing if their dialogue hadn't all been [insert themes here], or if Warner or St. James had managed to conjure up something slightly more between them than a theoretical recognition that they could fuck. It probably didn't help Beesley's chances, I guess, that half of their conversations reach an impasse because they keep running into a steerage passenger who looks like a fashion model dressed in "Edwardian semi-poor" period costume (and I have an inkling that is, indeed, exactly what Toni Darling was), and every time Beesley sees her, his mouth falls open in an expression of cartoonish lust that doesn't look right on Warner's face.
If you noticed that I've only mentioned one steerage passenger, and she doesn't even have a name (she also has no lines), then that's not accident. This film "about class" gives about as much of a shit as any of its predecessors about the steerage passengers, that is, "not much." It does visit the lower decks from time to time—its principal poor person, James Farrell (Robert Pugh), gets the same lovestruck feeling that Beesley does whenever he beholds their jointly-appreciated "Irish beauty," and this works out very slightly better for him while emotionally mattering precisely as little. Investing even less character in these guys than in its first- and second-class passengers, this class-conscious Titanic somehow winds up with even duller proles than its predecessors; good grief, even the Nazi film does better. (And that the film initially threatens a reverse Jack 'n' Rose before deciding it's only going to use Warner's leering as some sort of drab symbolism prompted me to realize that it wasn't until Cameron made his Titanic that any of the films based on the disaster actually cared about anybody in steerage. Which I don't necessarily require as a condition of a "good Titanic movie," but pretending to care is surely the worst of all worlds.)
But what of the ship itself, and her demise? S.O.S. Titanic, like any Titanic film, labors under foregone conclusions, and the fact that any artistic depiction of the sinking of the Titanic will always have to figure out a way to mine drama out of a disaster that was—simultaneously—hopeless, fairly orderly, and flatly objectionable in the ways it segregated certain categories to bear the brunt of the catastrophe's consequences. S.O.S. Titanic barely has an opinion about this, and, in any case, as a cheap movie made in 1979, isn't capable of experiential spectacle either. It accomplishes less in this latter regard than any predecessor (they could at least afford canted angles and gimboled floors), while almost everything it does effectively is aped wholesale from A Night To Remember, the only two exceptions to the rule "like A Night To Remember, but worse in every way" I can think of being the portentous close-ups of the electrodes on the wireless set as the heroic radio operator Harold Cottam (Christopher Strauli) works, and the staccato editing rhythms that attend the single best line-read of the whole film, given by a featured extra playing a lookout who sees the looming iceberg and affectlessly states, "We've had it." (The closing line, "God went down with the Titanic," is pretty good, but nihilism would still be an an operating mode, and this film has never had one of those.)
The theoretical advantages of this clean, blank presentation never pan out, either: the reasons for the disaster are muddled; the evacuation isn't done much better. (The other featured extras here can often barely reach "vaguely worried.") S.O.S. Titanic does, at least, benefit from being shot mostly on the decks and within the bowels of an actual ocean liner (the RMS Queen Mary in California). For the serious Titanic-head, apparently this is awfully distracting, but it's probably the one thing the film does well: it provides a real sense of tangibility that, after all, is one of the 70s disaster flick's hallmarks. But by the same token they couldn't just go out and sink the Queen Mary. They appear not to have been allowed to even drive it around. Which means that any establishing shot of the Titanic is a pasted-on low-fidelity painting of the Titanic, only just barely more persuasive than affixing a sticker of the RMS Titanic to the upper right-hand corner of your television. Which means that all that "tangibility" is pretty much for naught.
Otherwise, S.O.S. Titanic bears a sheen of professionalism, belying its utter passivity. Consider cinematographer Christopher Challis's one-filter-fits-any-shot approach that drenches the entire movie in the same white fog with the same diffusive lens flares, so every single image looks "fine" but also "wearisomely identical." Writer James Costigan was assigned the task of making an intelligent Titanic movie. He achieved only a witheringly dry one. It's a film that seems to want to be "a procedural" as its inspiration A Night To Remember had been (which prompts the question, "why bother if it already exists?"), but evinces no more interest in "procedure" than it does in its feeble attempts at human drama. I feel like it should be important that the greatest decade of disaster cinema produced one film to tell the story of the most legendary maritime disaster of all time. But this impulse produced only S.O.S. Titanic, perhaps the single least essential disaster film of its age.