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Savant Short Review:

S.O.S. Titanic

S.O.S. Titanic
Image Entertainment
1979 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 103 (150) min.
Starring David Janssen, Cloris Leachman, Susan Saint James, David Warner, Ian Holm, Helen Mirren, Harry Andrews, Beverly Cross, Aubrey Morris, Ed Bishop, Jerry Houser, Warren Clarke
Cinematography Christopher Challis
Production Designer Herbert Westbrook
Special effects supervisors Martin Gutteridge, Wally Veevers
Film Editor Rusty Coppleman
Original Music Howard Blake
Written by James Costigan
Produced by William S. Gilmore Jr., Roger Gimbel, Lou Morheim
Directed by Billy Hale

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Not a bad stab at the Titanic story, and the first version in color, this expensive-looking two-part television movie has some strong performances and nice art direction on what must have been a modest budget. On the tube it was impressive indeed, as A Night to Remember was at the time considered by most viewers an 'Old Movie' in accursed black & white, and wasn't being shown much. Making more out of the class system by which the Titanic's passengers were segregated, S.O.S. Titanic could at least hold a candle to that 1958 milestone. This DVD presentation, while otherwise better than adequate, has a crippling problem - a third of the show has been cut away, which plays havoc with the large cast of characters in the second half.


The ship Titanic goes down on April 12, 1912: the events are covered from the launching to the rescue of the survivors by the Carpathia, the next morning in a fog-shrouded ice field.

In what is basically a straight remake of A Night to Remember in color, S.O.S. Titanic told the same events almost the same way, but with less detail and a lot more of a political agenda than that English classic. If you're familiar with the earlier film, this is going to seem like a replay of familiar scenes, with a more recognizeable cast. Instead of ensemble impartiality, with the only star of the piece being the ship itself, this version concentrates on about twenty characters.

Millionaire John Jacob Astor (David Jannsen) is enjoying his young bride Madeline (Beverly Ross) but enduring the cold-shoulder treatment from the other swells who resent his recent divorce. Cloris Leachman is a spirited, spunky Molly Brown, and has the most animated part. David Warner and Susan Saint James play a Goodbye, Mr. Chips- inflected pair of schoolteachers who flirt with an affair before the Big Dunk - it is indeed refreshing to see Warner in a role where he's not a psycho or a villain. Ian Holm has little to do but act conflicted as the owner who abandons his ship along with the women and children. A grand Harry Andrews plays the captain with fine restraint.

Unfortunately, this DVD appears to be a European theatrical cutdown of the longer television version, drastically reduced from 150 minutes to 103. The truncation can't help but massacre the show, which appears to play practically untouched until the disaster. The icberg shows up at about the 70 minute mark. Before that time a regular soap-opera has developed, with not only the couples previously mentioned, but a fair number of others. American moviemaker Jerry Houser (Summer of '42), ladies maid Helen Mirren, and a score of interesting Irish characters attract our attention.

But the second half of the show, which used to be about these people, is now mostly limited to the mechanics of the sinking of the unsinkable ship. The struggle of the various parties to realize the scope of the disaster, and sort themselves out amid the panic are dropped, along with all sense of tension. Some get on boats and some don't, and there's no time at all to keep straight who's made it and who hasn't. If anything interesting devloped in the various relationships we've just begun to get interested in, it's not there now. Viewers who want the full rundown on who's who and what happens to them will need to refer to the full cast list (including who survives and who does not) that's featured on the IMDB's entry for the film. It seems to have a couple of dozen names we can't place - I saw Warren Clarke (A Clockwork Orange) zip by once, but I can't say I'm sure it was he.

As the drama was interestingly muted to begin with, but the cutting takes away what interest it had. There's no emotional fireworks, as in Titanic '53, no fantasy crimes and shootouts like Titanic '97. And the show is light on detail, for which A Night to Remember wins hands down. With so many of its little subplots pared away, it plays like a thoughtless, rushed remake, and makes little impression.

The scope of the production is quite good, especially the costumes and the casting. It never has a made-for-television feel, with the lavish sets of the ballrooms and galleries on board the ship.

The special effects are adequate, but of course amount to little when compared to the eye-popping work on the King of the World's version. Poor Wally Veevers, the doyen of cheap UK films since time began, must have had to make spectacular shots out of little or nothing. Some color angles of the huge boat sticking out of the water are quite good, but others fail to convince, and still others are black and white stock shots from - 2 guesses - A Night to Remember.

Of all the versions of the Titanic story, this one unfortunately comes in last. The full show probably wouldn't have been a classic, but most likely would have made a much stronger impression.

Image's DVD of S.O.S. Titanic is a simple bare-bones presentation; its own jacket copy seems intimidated by the shadow of the 1997 best-picture winner. The letterboxed image is the giveaway that this is a European theatrical version. The transfer is good and the elements used clean, but overall the show looks a bit soft and a bit light, as if a lot of diffusion was used during filming, and the telecine couldn't compensate. Several notes of the 'icebergs ahead' variety are rather hard to read. The sound is mono; there are no extras save for an isolated music and sound effects track. It's pretty much recommended for Titanic completists and fans of the individual stars.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
S.O.S. Titanic rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 7, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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