Kenneth More as Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of the RMS Titanic
North Atlantic Ocean, April 1912
Film: A Night to Remember
Release Date: July 3, 1958
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Costume Designer: Yvonne Caffin
101 years ago at 2:20 a.m., the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg, resulting in the death of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. The story has remained at the forefront of public consciousness for generations to follow, an enduring historic tragedy that has resulted in scores of books, films, televised works, and more, perhaps most famously the 1997 blockbuster Titanic directed by James Cameron.
Cameron stated that he was inspired by scenes from the 1958 film A Night to Remember, a comparatively little-known film when compared to his expensive epic. However, many historians refer to A Night to Remember the definitive filmed adaptation of the disaster. While a few details of the ship’s ordeal are missing due to either budget constraints or unknown developments (it wasn’t confirmed that the ship broke into two while sinking until the wreckage were discovered by Robert Ballard in 1985), it presents the nearest thing to an accurate narrative docudrama. Unlike most versions of the tale presented in the decades before or after it, A Night to Remember focuses solely on the actual passengers and crew, creating composite characters where necessary but never deviating from the accepted truth of the individual stories of everyone on board, whether they stepped onto a lifeboat, fought for their lives in the icy water and managed to survive, or perished.
Where Cameron invented the star-crossed Jack and Rose to push his story, the makers of A Night to Remember chose Charles Lightoller, the ship’s second officer, as the central character in their real-life drama. Gallantly portrayed by Kenneth More, Lightoller presents a natural choice as a human anchor for the story; as the most senior officer to survive, the real Lightoller recalled details and events vital to the subsequent inquiries to tell the story of the sinking.
Some creative license on the part of the filmmakers—i.e. Lightoller’s verbal showdown with hubris-driven line president Ismay during the lowering of a lifeboat actually involved Fifth Officer Lowe—but Lightoller’s story is certainly one worth telling and is inextricably linked with the grand ship in its final moments. After supervising the loading of Titanic‘s port side lifeboats (and perhaps too sternly adhering to the “women and children first” adage), Lightoller noticed water approaching the ship’s bridge: not much time was left. He gathered some hands and began trying to free the two remaining collapsible lifeboats fastened to the top of the officers’ quarters. The port side collapsible, Boat B, landed upside-down on deck and floated off as water overtook the deck while the ship plunged into the sea.
The same plunge sucked Lightoller against an air shaft that threatened to trap him as the ship continued down or—perhaps more horrifying—would suck him into the bowels of the rapidly sinking ship with no chance for escape if the grate atop the shaft broke. The veteran seaman struggled to break free until a blast of air from down below blew him away from the shaft and back up to the surface of the ocean. Within three minutes, Titanic was gone and the sea was full of freezing swimmers. Lightoller made his way to a group struggling to clamber aboard the keel of the overturned collapsible B, taking command of the group that eventually numbered around thirty who would be saved.
Following the Titanic disaster, the rescue of survivors by Carpathia and its captain Arthur Rostron, and providing invaluable evidence in courts of inquiry on both sides of the Atlantic, Lightoller was decorated for gallantry as a naval officer during World War I. Even as a civilian, he would continue to serve with distinction when he used his personal motor yacht, Sundowner, to rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.
The 1950s saw a resurgence in interest in the story of the White Star liner, beginning with the release of the 20th Century Fox melodrama Titanic in 1953 and Walter Lord’s 1955 book A Night to Remember, which would inspire both a Kraft Television Theatre adaptation in March 1956 and this cinematic adaptation two years later.
Unfortunately, Lightoller wouldn’t live to add his commentary to this new generation of interested historians. The lifelong pipe smoker died of chronic heart disease in December 1952 at the age of 78, nearly half a decade before his legacy would be immortalized by Kenneth More’s performance in A Night to Remember.
What’d He Wear?
Second Officer Lightoller’s primary attire aboard Titanic is his blue service dress officer’s uniform prescribed by White Star Line, though officers were reportedly required to purchase their own uniforms from authorized tailors. At the time, White Star Line service uniforms reflected the fashions of the British Royal Navy, apropos many officers’ membership in the Royal Navy Reserve. (The excellent resource Encyclopedia Titanica provides much of the background information, though there’s also considerable detail about White Star officers’ uniforms at this site dedicated to the life of First Officer William Murdoch.)
Lightoller’s service dress uniform consists of a double-breasted reefer jacket (or “monkey jacket”) with matching trousers, both in dark navy blue doeskin, a tightly woven woolen flannel cloth with a soft nap that sartorial expert Hardy Amies assures us in his definitive 1964 ABCs of Men’s Fashion is “not really the skin of a doe, but a woolen cloth made to look like it by felting,”
The double-breasted reefer jacket has a high-fastening double-breasted front with two neat, parallel columns of four gilted brass buttons, each emblazoned with the White Star Line “house flag” emblem rather than the fouled anchor used on Royal Navy uniform tunics. The revers more closely resemble the “cran necker” notched lapels than the traditional peak lapels on double-breasted lounge jackets, and the lapels are finished with welted edges. While “swelled edges” like this often add a sporty effect to jackets and outerwear, they serve a more practical purpose for officers like Lightoller as this technique keeps the cloth together in wet conditions… such as a ship’s officer could expect to encounter. The jacket also has a welted breast pocket which slants down toward the chest just below the top left button, jetted hip pockets, and short side vents.
On this jacket, Lightoller’s rank as Second Officer is denoted on his cuff with a single looped gold bullion braid stripe; this loop, known as the “executive curl” was reserved for senior officers only; junior officers (Third through Sixth, on Titanic) wore only a single stripe. Captains wore four braid stripes with a loop, Chief Officers three, First Officers two, and Second Officers one. (Interestingly, the stripe makes officers’ uniforms more similar to the Royal Navy than the Royal Navy Reserve, to which most officers belonged. The RNR was known as the “Wavy Navy” due to their wavy braid stripes with six-pointed, rounded-edged star designs.)
Like his fellow officers, Lightoller wears his service dress peaked cap with its navy blue cloth cover, mohair band, black patent leather peak, and felt badge with the White Star Line crest in gold bullion.
For his shift that ends at 10 p.m. on Sunday night, Lightoller bundles up against the cold Atlantic air with his officer’s greatcoat, white finely ribbed scarf with fringed ends, and dark leather gloves.
The knee-length dark navy Melton wool overcoat mirrors the reefer tunic he wears beneath it with its eight gilt shank buttons—each embossed with the White Star Line flag emblem—arranged in a high-fastening, double-breasted configuration in two columns of four buttons each. The coat also has straight flapped hip pockets and, unlike his uniform jacket, the back of Lightoller’s greatcoat has a button-on half-belt, fastened on each end with a gilt button. The coat also has an ulster collar and his second officer rating is denoted with shoulder boards worn on his epaulettes (shoulder straps) rather than braided around each cuff.
Before making his rounds of Titanic‘s interior spaces, Lightoller sends his outerwear back to his cabin in the hands of a trusted steward. On duty, he wears not his turtleneck jumper but the proper white shirt and narrow black tie in its four-in-hand knot. The shirt has a detachable club collar fastened into place with gold studs and double (French) cuffs, worn with a set of metallic rhombus-shaped links.
Several photos I’ve seen of White Star Line officers, including the Titanic crew, tend to represent the officers wearing black cap-toe oxford shoes, though I’m not sure footwear White Star Line prescribed with service dress uniforms. In A Night to Remember, Lightoller wears ankle-high chukka boots with open-front derby lacing, finished in the appropriate black leather and worn with black socks.
“Hurrying back to the two remaining lifeboats still hanging in their davits, I met the Purser, Assistant Purser, and the Senior and Junior surgeons—the latter a noted wag—even in the face of tragedy, couldn’t resist his last mild joke, ‘Hello, Lights, are you warm?’ The idea of anyone being warm in that temperature was a joke in itself, and I suppose it struck him as odd to meet me wearing a sweater, no coat or overcoat. I had long since discarded my great coat, even in pants and sweater over pyjamas alone I was in a bath of perspiration,” Lightoller himself recalled in his 1935 memoir Titanic and Other Ships.
Finally, Lightoller wears a pinky ring on his left hand, either an affectation of Kenneth More’s or reflective of an item the actual officer wore.
Aboard the Carpathia
After the Titanic survivors are taken aboard the Carpathia, we next find them gathered for a prayer service. Among them is wireless operator Harold Bride (David McCallum), who appears to be wearing Lightoller’s bulky off-white sweater. (In real life, Bride suffered from terrible frostbite and had to leave the ship in crutches when it arrived in New York.)
Lightoller has been outfitted with a new reefer jacket, and the three bands around each arm suggest that it was lent by Carpathia‘s Chief Officer, Thomas Hankinson, and thus the gilt buttons would be embossed with the Cunard logo rather than that of White Star Line. Lights also has a different jumper, a lighter-weight and darker turtleneck, almost certainly a dark navy cloth.
Lightoller the Civilian
At the start of the film, Lightoller and his wife Sylvia (Jane Downs) get the attention of a stodgy couple in their train compartment as Lightoller gently mocks an ad for Vinolia Otto Toilet Soap. He wears a well-cut country suit in a light-colored barleycorn tweed with subtle striping, though I would suspect the color is along the light brown spectrum.
The single-breasted, high-fastening jacket has notch lapels and patch pockets (including his breast pocket) with swelled edges. There is a seam around the cuff of each sleeve, which is decorated with two buttons. He also wears a high-fastening, single-breasted matching five-button waistcoat (vest) with notch lapels and four flapped set-in pockets. His trousers are held up with dark suspenders (braces) and have plain-hemmed bottoms that break high to reveal his light-colored socks and dark leather low-quarter oxford shoes.
Lightoller could very well be wearing one of the same white cotton shirts that he wears with his White Star Line service uniform, as this also has double cuffs—here worn with flat hexagonal metal links—and a detachable club collar. His dark knitted silk necktie is neatly patterned in rows of seven white pin dots and has a flat bottom.
Go Big or Go Home
As a disciplined and experienced senior officer of the White Star Line, Charles Lightoller carried himself with a well-earned dignity, exercising courtesy, chivalry, nautical skills… and guts.
Shortly after the collision, Lightoller leapt out of bed (which I can never do, sinking ship or otherwise) and—as soon as he was called to duty—immediately took charge. He loaded up the port side boats, butting heads with plenty of angry, desperate men. He loaded up the last boat, a collapsible, until it was nearly buckling under the weight. Instead of thinking, “Hey, this is the last boat, I better get outta here,” he instead grabbed a few extra seamen to get the remaining two collapsible lifeboats off of the top of the officers’ quarters. (Props to the equally gutsy Sixth Officer Moody who, despite Lightoller telling him to get into the last lifeboat, remained behind to help and went down with the ship. Hell of a sacrifice for a 24-year-old junior officer making only $37 per month.)
Then—oh no!—the water is coming and the lifeboat landed on deck upside down! Does Lightoller panic? No, he abandons it and begins working on the starboard side to free the other collapsible.
He actually goes down with the ship, sucked onto a ventilation grate. He fights like a panther to break away and finally does with the help of a burst of air from somewhere belowdecks. Lightoller himself recounts the adventure best in Titanic and Other Ships:
There was only one thing to do, and I might just as well do it and get it over, so, turning to the fore part of the bridge, I took a header. Striking the water was like a thousand knives being driven into one’s body, and , for a few moments, I completely lost grip of myself, and no wonder, for I was perspiring freely, whilst the temperature of the water was 28º or 4º below freezing.
Ahead of me the look-out cage on the foremast was visible just above the water—in normal times it would be a hundred feet above. I struck out blindly for this, but only for a short while, till I got hold of myself again and realised the futility of seeking safety on anything connected with the ship. I then turned to starboard, away from the ship altogether.
For a time I wondered what was making it so difficult for me to keep my head above the water. Time and again I went under, until it dawned on me that it was the great Webley revolver, still in my pocket, that was dragging me down. I soon sent that on its downward journey.
The water was now pouring down the stokeholds, by way of the fiddley gratings abaft the bridge, and round the forward funnel.
On the boat deck, above our quarters, on the fore part of the forward funnel, was a huge rectangular air shaft and ventilator, with an opening about twenty by fifteen feet. On this opening was a light wire grating to prevent rubbish being drawn down, or anything else being thrown down. This shaft led direct to No. 3 stokehold, and was therefore a sheer drop of close on hundred feet, right to the bottom of the ship.
I suddenly found myself drawn, by the sudden rush of the surface water now pouring down this shaft, and held flat and firmly up against this wire netting, with the additional full and clear knowledge of what would happen if this light wire carried away. The pressure of the water just glued me there whilst the ship sank slowly below the surface.
Although I struggled and kicked for all I was worth, it was impossible to get away, for as fast as I pushed myself off I was irresistibly dragged back, every instant expecting the wire to go, and to find myself shot down into the bowels of the ship.
Apart from that, I was drowning, and a matter of another couple of minutes would have seen me through. I was still struggling and fighting when suddenly a terrific blast of hot air came up the shaft, and blew me right away from the air shaft and up to the surface.
The water was now swirling round, and the ship sinking rapidly, when once again I was caught and sucked down by an inrush of water, this time adhering to one of the fiddley gratings. Just how I got clear of that, I don’t know, as I was rather losing interest in things, but I eventually came to the surface once again, this time alongside that last Engleheart[sic] boat which Hemming and I had launched from on top of the officers’ quarters on the opposite side—for I was now on the starboard side, near the forward funnel.
There were many around in the water by this time, some swimming, others (mostly men, thank God), definitely drowning—an utter nightmare of both sight and sound. In the circumstances, I made no effort to get on top of the upturned boat, but, for some reason, was content to remain floating alongside, just hanging on to a small piece of rope.
The bow of the ship was now rapidly going down and the stern rising higher and higher out of the water, piling the people into helpless heaps around the steep decks, and by the score into the icy water. Had the boats been around many might have been saved, but, of them, at this time, there was no sign. Organised help, or even individual help, was quite impossible. All one could do was just wait on events, and try and forget the icy cold grip of the water.
Once Lightoller gets to the overturned Collapsible B, now floating in the water, he corrals a few men to balance it out and leads around thirty people to safety after the ship founders, including wireless operator Harold Bride and the adventurous American author Colonel Archibald Gracie IV.
To Lightoller’s detriment, he has been contemporarily criticized for his stern interpretation of Captain Smith’s “women and children first” rule for loading the lifeboats. While First Officer Murdoch was reasonably permissive of men joining women in the lifeboats, providing that there was room, Lightoller held fast to a “women and children only” rule, and the only adult men permitted into lifeboats were crew members qualified to navigate them, aside from the Canadian yachtsman Arthur Peuchen who Lightoller allowed to climb down into lifeboat 6 when it was brought to his attention—in mid-launch—that there were not enough hands in the small boat. Lightoller’s steadfast interpretation of the order and the traditions of peril at sea likely resulted in more people going down with the ship.
Once the Titanic‘s condition becomes plainly obvious to most passengers and crew, Captain Smith confidentially requests of Fourth Officer Boxhall to “ask Mr. Wilde where the arms and ammunition are kept… they may be needed later.” It it certainly true that there were revolvers on the Titanic that were issued to the senior officers during the sinking, notably wielded by First Officer Murdoch and Second Officer Lightoller. Lightoller himself refers to “the great Webley revolver” in his pocket nearly weighing him down in the water before he discarded it, adding credibility to the accepted suggestion that the authorized armament were the same .455-caliber Webley Mk IV revolvers carried by the British military at the time.
In a slight anachronism, the revolvers portrayed in A Night to Remember are the next generation of the same revolver, the Webley Mk V, which wasn’t introduced until it was first issued to the British military in December 1913. In fact, when World War I broke out several months later, the initial order for 20,000 Mk V revolvers still hadn’t been completed so many British officers marched into war with existing stocks of the older Mk IV. The Mk V itself would soon be replaced by the 6″-barreled Webley Mk VI, distinctive for its squared grips as opposed to the “bird’s beak” grips of previous models.
Given that the first five generations ofthese 4″-barreled, six-shot, break-top .455 Webley revolvers are cosmetically similar and A Night to Remember was made in an era where viewers wouldn’t be as easily able to discern the subtle differences of screen-used weaponry, it’s hard to take issue with the production’s decision to arm its officers with this slightly anachronistic generation of the weapon. Lightoller is portrayed using his Webley to prevent a rush on the last lifeboat, collapsible D, struggling to draw it from his right-side pocket before firing four shots into the air to dissuade crowds from storming onto the boat.
In real life, Murdoch and Lightoller definitely had Webleys, with others reportedly ending up in the hands of Captain Smith, Chief Officer Wilde, and possibly Purser McElroy. While Murdoch seems to be the latter-day favorite for the morbid “Which officer shot himself?” game—as depicted in Cameron’s Titanic—A Night to Remember omits any suicide as these stories were as confirmed in 1958 as they remain in 2018. (For those curious in an academic approach to these theories and suggestions, a great article by Titanic historians Bill Wormstedt and Tad Fitch is available here.)
For anyone curious, Fifth Officer Lowe also carried his own personal handgun on the ship. Referred to as a “revolver” but almost certainly a Browning semi-automatic, he used it to fire at the sides of the ship as he was lowered in lifeboat no. 14 to keep out a group of “Italians” from leaping into the boat and turning it over.
How to Get the Look
Hey, you could always just go and join the White Star Line. If only it existed beyond the 1930s… otherwise, Second Officer Lightoller’s attire lends some good style tips for any boaters out there or at least men who like naval-inspired wardrobe choices.
- Dark navy wool double-breasted uniform reefer jacket with eight brass buttons, peak lapels, slanted welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, short double side vents, and single gold bullion looped stripe cuff insignia
- Dark navy wool flat front trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Ivory heavy wool turtleneck sweater with ribbed neck, cuffs, and waistband
- White shirt with detachable club collar and double/French cuffs
- Narrow black four-in-hand necktie
- Metallic rhombus-shaped cuff links
- Black leather chukka boots
- Black socks
- Dark navy cloth-cover peaked cap with brass White Star Line flag badge and black patent leather brim
- Dark navy melton wool double-breasted uniform greatcoat with eight brass buttons, peak lapels, flapped hip pockets, and single gold bullion looped stripe insignia on brass-buttoned epaulettes
- White lightweight scarf
- Dark leather gloves
- Pinky ring, worn on left pinky
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie, one of my favorites of all time.
Also, it’s worth looking into the book that inspired the film. Walter Lord spent the bulk of his life researching Titanic and, in 1955, released A Night to Remember, a definitive account of the sinking that used the British and American inquiry transcripts and first-hand interviews with survivors to piece together the night as it happened. Lord’s book is a no-fluff narrative that is both informative and emotional.
As the Carpathia approaches, Lightoller and Colonel Archibald Gracie share their thoughts on the disaster. Gracie was one of the more helpful passengers during the sinking and later found himself aboard collapsible B with Lightoller. Gracie would publish his own memoirs of the sinking later in 1912, but unfortunately the gallant hero died before the year was over due to complications from his time in the freezing Atlantic.
Gracie: Aren’t you glad to see [Carpathia]?
Lightoller: Yes, I’m glad. But then, I’m still alive.
Gracie: If only she’d been nearer.
Lightoller: There are quite a lot of “ifs” about it, aren’t there, Colonel…? If we’d been steaming a few knots slower, or if we’d sighted that berg a few seconds earlier, we might not even have struck. If we’d been carrying enough lifeboats for the size of the ship instead of just enough to meet the regulations, things would have been different again, wouldn’t they?
Gracie: Maybe. But you have nothing to reproach yourself with. You’ve done all any man could and more. You’re not- I was about to say, you’re not God, Mr. Lightoller.
Lightoller: No seaman ever thinks he is! I’ve been at sea since I was a boy. I’ve been in sail. I’ve even been shipwrecked before. I know what the sea can do! But, this is different…
Gracie: Because we hit an iceberg?
Lightoller: No, because we were so sure! Because even though it’s happened, it’s still unbelievable! I don’t think I’ll ever feel sure again… about anything.