S.O.S. Titanic (1979) – A Review
The unsinkable ship RMS Titanic is carrying a full load of passengers ranging from the wealthiest first class to the lowly poor third class. It looks like clear sailing for its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, but it’s on course for a tragic ending. An unexpected collision with an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, its sinking and the tragic loss of life will send shock and outrage throughout the world and will send Titanic into the history books.
In 1979 ABC television featured this mini-series about Titanic. Of course there had already been several films about Titanic made before and after ABC’s ‘movie of the week two-night event’. This is not one of the better ones.
There’s not one sole lead that we follow throughout the move. We bounce from one set of characters to the next in an effort to capture the atmosphere of the differing classes onboard.
Out of the ‘names’ in the cast, David Janssen is John Jacob Astor and Cloris Leachman as Molly Brown are probably the weakest interpretations of the real life passengers. Ian Holm does a better job as White Star Chairman Bruce Ismay. He has some good moments. There’s third class passengers, of which I wasn’t familiar with the actors, but they were pretty forgettable.
Sadly, other than David Warner and Susan St. James as a pair of second-class passengers there weren’t any characters I was engaged by. Warner is Laurence Beesley and St. James’ Leigh Goodwin is a composite character he begins to falls for. Although it gets a bit soap opera-y at times, I have to say they were the sole thing I enjoyed while waiting for the iceberg to show up.
I was reminded how good-looking St. James was back then. Also it’s strange to watch Warner onboard the Titanic and not be handcuffing people to pipes.
This fictionalized second-class romance between Beesley allows the real life character to reveal some of the true account that Beesley witnessed leading up to the disaster. Beesley and Goodwin’s conversations also get to reinforce the idea of the class structure on the ship. In one scene they discuss their awkward middle position between first and third class and they’re literally looking down on third and in on first.
There were a handful of good moments and scenes sprinkled throughout this big television production:
Warner being apprehensive of talking to a girl in third-class.
A maid played by Helen Mirren telling architect Thomas Andrews he must survive because there will be questions only he can answer.
A group of third class passengers escaping to the upper deck through the elegant dining room and being stopped by an officer who refuses to let them pass through it and instructing them not to steal anything.
Holm’s Ismay being distressed at what he’s witnessing and his guilt-filled decision to step into a lifeboat as the captain looks on.
The shock of the survivors on the Carpathia.
The special effects of the sinking itself are pretty dismal – and I’m talking even by 1979 standards. The model work is pretty shoddy. Some fans speculate that they actually use some colorized shots from A Night To Remember during the sinking scenes. I couldn’t say for sure while watching it, but if true it’s really, really strange that they would use footage from a 1958 film. It really says something that twenty years later the effects of the Titanic sinking from that movie was something they couldn’t improve on. Unless they were just trying to save money.
I suspect this tv movie must of partially came about because of the disaster craze that had gripped the decade. The Titanic story is tailor-made to fit in with that. The story has always fascinated people and along with the popularity of disaster movies at the time it seems like a given Titanic would have an updated retelling at that point.
I happened to catch this on the Decades Network, which was marking the anniversary of the Titanic sinking. Supposedly S.O.S. Titanic was originally 140 minutes when it debuted on television, but today the only version available is a edited down 109 minute cut. I’m not sure if the longer cut is any better, but I can’t say I’d recommend this. Maybe if you’re a hardcore Titanic buff, but really don’t expect much. You’d be much better off watching A Night To Remember again, which I still think is the best movie about the disaster.