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S.O.S. Titanic (Special Edition)

Kino // Unrated // October 13, 2020
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 28, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Originally a 144-minute TV movie later cut by nearly 40 minutes for theatrical release abroad and, later, home video release, S.O.S. Titanic (1979) has been restored to its original length for Blu-ray while also offering the shorter cut as a supplement. I recall being unimpressed by this historical drama when it first aired but, now having seen other Titanic movies and armed with a greater awareness of that famous tragedy, I can appreciate its modest accomplishments.

Director Roy Ward Baker's adaptation of Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember (1958) remains the Gold Standard of Titanic films. Produced on a large budget for Britain but modest by Hollywood standards, it's among the most accurate and remains unbearably tense, even when seen today. James Cameron's more widely disseminated Titanic (1997) is an extraordinary achievement from a production standpoint, but that film's often ludicrous, wholly-fictional love story aggressively worked against its overall verisimilitude.

S.O.S. Titanic offers more realistic drama, though it's hampered by other limitations. The special effects are barely adequate, even by 1979 standards, and its reported $5 million budget isn't really enough to cover the scale of its story. And while the Blu-ray includes the long-lost long version of the film, even at nearly two-and-a-half hours it plays as if an even longer cut was originally intended.

The most intriguing aspects of S.O.S. Titanic are how it deviates from other Titanic movies. This one, for instance, begins with the RMA Carpathia receiving the Titanic's distress signal, racing to her location, and taking aboard survivors found drifting in lifeboats. Dramatically this is unusually effective, as most everyone is in a state of shock and nearly all the survivors are speechless and unexpressive, lending a sense of dread, knowing what they've experienced.

Like A Night to Remember, S.O.S. is an ensemble piece. In the U.S., however, TV star David Janssen (as John Jacob Astor IV) was prominently featured in the ads, but he's onscreen no more, perhaps even less, than lower-billed cast members like David Wa er, playing British teacher and Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley, a shy man who becomes attracted to an American woman, Leigh Goodwin (Susan Saint James). Though Goodwin is a fictional creation, their budding relationship is far more believable and their conversations more intelligent and interesting than the big romance in Cameron's film. And less time is spent with Janssen's character than eight Irish immigrants in steerage. S.O.S. may be the most accurate of Titanic films to date in dramatizing their environment and fact-based characters.

Perhaps the most striking deviation from other Titanic films is the depiction of J. Bruce Ismay (Ian Holm), the highest-ranking White Star Line official to survive the sinking. Jumping aboard a lifeboat (a "Collapsible C" model) just 20 minutes before the ship went down, in the weeks and years that followed Ismay was vilified in the press, particularly in newspapers controlled by William Randolph Hearst. Nearly all films about the Titanic cast him in an unfavorable light, if not an outright villain. Most other Titanic movies make Ismay directly responsible for the disaster, he accused of pressuring Captain Smith (played here by the reliable Harry Andrews) to arrive in New York ahead of schedule for publicity reasons, an accusation wholly unsupported by evidence. In S.O.S., Ismay does exactly the opposite: when Captain Smith suggests increasing the Titanic's speed for the Line's benefit, it's Ismay who vetoes the idea, insisting that the ship's safety comes first.

Further, the film takes a somewhat nonjudgmental approach to Ismay's last-minute decision to save himself. Unlike the First-Class passengers, exemplified by Astor, blithely confident the Titanic is unsinkable even after she strikes the iceberg, Ismay is aware within minutes of the collision that the ship is doomed, and that most of its passengers face imminent, horrible death. The film asks the viewing audience to put oneself in Ismay's place: would you bravely "go down with the ship," or save yourself no matter that cost to one's reputation? Similarly, the courage of "Unsinkable Molly" Brown (Cloris Leachman) is downplayed here. In other films, aboard Lifeboat 6 she pressures crewmen to go back to save dozens of others in the freezing water, where here her pleas are ste ly overruled.

The depiction of steerage class life, while a far cry from the ostentatious luxury afforded the First-Class passengers, is quite different from that seen in other Titanic films. Prior to the disaster, the mostly Irish passengers are full of hope for the future, and there's a sense of communal living and kinship the likes of which aren't really depicted elsewhere: they eat together, dance and drink ale together, and lack the stuffy, image-consciousness of their "betters."

Minus the hoary melodrama of the Cameron Titanic, this film addresses how the inequities of the British class system contributed to the tragedy, where nearly all the women and children of the First and Second Class were saved but more than 50% in steerage died. (66% of children, 54% of women.)

Many reviews state S.O.S. Titanic was shown over two nights and, maybe it was, but my recollection is that it was originally broadcast in a single three-hour time slot. However, 144 minutes also comes out to two 72-minute shows/90-minute time slots, which seems incorrect. My fallible thinking is that it may have originally been intended to run in two 98-minute blocks as two 120-minute (w/commercials) parts, meaning 196 minutes, or a full 52 minutes longer than the broadcast version. If that's true the cuts may have come right before or during production, so maybe only some or none of that material was shot.

Regardless, dramatic material definitely seems missing. In one scene, for instance, Aubrey Morris's steward is frantically trying to get a small child to a lifeboat, but the audience never lea s what happened after that. One of the Irish lads tu s up in a lifeboat, alive, but how'd he get there? Perhaps most tellingly, several British actors in the cast, fairly big names in their native Britain but not the U.S., and their scenes appear more likely truncated than those featuring American name actors like Susan Saint James. Anna Quayle, for one, plays a Turkish bath attendant in one brief scene -- she's onscreen all of 15 seconds, and is never seen again, yet the end credits list her as a "survivor."

Andre Maranne from the Pink Panther movies, is glimpsed equally briefly, saying goodbye (in French) to his wife and children as they're lowered into a lifeboat, but that's the first and the last we ever see of him. Where'd he come from?

Helen Mirren's smallish part, as a stewardess to the Astors, appears onboard or at least very nearly in the same lifeboat that Ian Holm's character climbs into, then appears in a scene back on the ship with Thomas Andrews (Geoffrey Whitehead), only to reappear in the last non-collapsible lifeboat. However, she's not, I believe, in any of the Carpathian scenes. Why is this material so scrambled?

The British-American production recreates the Titanic cleverly using interiors of the Waldorf and Adelphi hotels, along with deck-side footage filmed aboard the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach, Califo ia, with the TSS Manxman doubling for the Carpathia. This works reasonably well, until the Titanic starts sinking. At this point the production had to rely on water-swept studio-built sets, and clearly the budget wasn't enough to afford much more than a small section of the ship. Director William Hale tries to disguise this inadequacy with varying angles, but it's clear the climatic scenes are confined to a limited amount of soundstage space. Likewise, the special effects seem to employ cutouts of what might be photographs of the real Titanic optically combined with other components (icebergs, the ocean, etc.). There are a few model shots, but not many.

Video & Audio

Kino's two-disc set offers a new 4K restoration of the shorter theatrical cut, and a new HD master of the long TV version. The 4K remaster looks significantly better, with superior color timing and less blotchy lab work, but it's still the one to watch as the theatrical version is far too cut down to remain coherent and some characters are deleted altogether. Happily, both versions are presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, and the show was clearly framed with that in mind. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is par for the course of what most TV and 35mm releases still sounded like at that time. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" encoded disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include a new commentary track by Evgueni Miodik covering both a comparison of the two versions and to historical events; previously released newsreel footage of both the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic; and a trailer for the 1943 Nazi-made Titanic.

Parting Thoughts

Unde ourished budget-wise and feeling incomplete even in its long version, S.O.S. Titanic still has plenty to offer and this thoughtfully prepared release comes Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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