101 years ago at 2:20 a.m., the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, resulting in the death of more than 1,500 passengers and crew.
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
Obviously, the death of 1,500 people is going to be a tragic event. Unfortunately, the extent of most of a modern generation’s knowledge about the event is that “OMG Leo died bc he loved Rose so much,” naturally referring to James Cameron’s well-researched but poorly-focused 1997 epic Titanic. 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 are legitimately heartbreaking and fascinating without having to pander to teenage emotions.
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 blockbuster. However, most experts will call 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 in 1985), it presents the nearest thing to an accurate narrative documentary.
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 their main character. Lightoller, excellently portrayed by Kenneth More, is a natural choice for the embodiment of the story; as the most senior officer to survive, Lightoller recalled details and events vital to the subsequent inquiries to tell the story of the sinking. Lightoller is depicted as a valiant man of duty, who tried to save as many lives as possible while still following orders. He is sympathetic, but stern enough to be respected as an officer.
While some of this may be creative license on the part of the filmmakers – Lightoller’s verbal showdown with hubris-driven line president Ismay during the lowering of a lifeboat actually involved Fifth Officer Lowe – Lightoller’s story is certainly worth telling. After supervising the loading of most port side lifeboats, including the final boat to leave the ship, 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 was thus floated off by Lightoller.
Lightoller was then sucked into a ventilation grate. The veteran seaman struggled to break free, but the air pressure was too much. Suddenly, a blast of air from down below blew him away from the grate and he swam away from the rapidly-sinking ship. Once the ship was gone and the sea was full of freezing swimmers, he commandeered the upside-down collapsible B and began fishing men out from the water, eventually managing the survival of around thirty persons.
Following the Titanic disaster and his invaluable evidence in court, Lightoller was decorated for gallantry as a naval officer during World War I and used his own personal motor yacht, the Sundowner, to rescue soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. The lifetime pipe smoker died of chronic heart disease in 1952 at the age of 78.
What’d He Wear?
Lightoller’s primary attire aboard ship is his White Star Line officer’s uniform. Since the film is B&W, colors cannot be determined with much certainty, so I will use the attire of an actual uniform to guide my judgement. The excellent resource Encyclopedia Titanica provides much of the background information.
Lightoller is seen in service dress, consisting of a black wool coat and trousers. At the time, the White Star Line’s service uniforms often resembled those of the Royal Navy, appropriate given many officers’ membership in the Royal Navy Reserve.
The coat, also referred to as a “monkey jacket”, is double-breasted black wool with peak lapels, a welted breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, and short double vents. It fastens high with eight brass buttons with the White Star Line’s “house flag” emblazoned on each button, replacing the “fouled anchor” used by the Royal Navy. Lightoller’s rank is denoted on his cuff braid; as a Second Officer, he wears a single looped gold bullion braid stripe.
The single looped stripe is the same insignia for Second through Sixth officers. The First Officer wears one row with a second looped row, the Chief Officer wears two rows with a third looped row, and the Captain wears three straight stripes with a fourth looped top stripe. Despite technically being a senior officer, the Second Officer wears the same insignia as the junior officers.
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.
His pants are a standard pair of black wool flat front trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms.
Lightoller’s officers’ cap is also black, resembling a Royal Navy cap with its black patent peak and gold bullion crest. Like the coat buttons, the only difference between the WSL officers’ caps and those of the Royal Navy is the replacement of the White Star Line house flag on the cap badge.
While on duty, Lightoller wears a white shirt with a detachable club collar and French cuffs, fastened with metallic rhombus-shaped cuff links. His neckwear is, as issued, a narrow black necktie with a small four-in-hand knot.
Due to the cold Atlantic air, Lightoller also wears an overcoat, white lightweight scarf, and dark leather gloves. The knee-length black greatcoat is basically a larger version of the monkey jacket: high-fastening and double-breasted with eight brass White Star Line house flag buttons. There are two flapped hip pockets and, rather than cuff braids, Lightoller’s insignia is present on his brass-buttoned epaulettes.
Lightoller’s footwear was also typical of officers, consisting of black leather chukka boots and black ribbed socks.
Finally, Lightoller wears a pinky ring on his left hand. I’m not sure if this had any significance.
After being roused from bed as the ship was sinking, the real life Lightoller reported donned trousers, a navy blue sweater, and his officer’s overcoat and cap all over his pajamas.
A Night to Remember has Lightoller instead wearing a much lighter sweater, an off-white heavyweight wool jumper with a bulky rolling turtleneck, ribbed cuffs, and a ribbed waistband. This was likely done to make Lightoller more visible in the B&W lighting used for the film.
Cameron’s Titanic, which features Lightoller in a much more limited role and also paints him as more of a smug, unsure bastard, gets the sweater correct.
Aboard the Carpathia
After the Titanic survivors were transferred to the Carpathia, Lightoller evidently lends his bulky off-white sweater to Bride, who suffered from frostbite in real life. We see him join Captain Rostron on deck in a jumper much like the one he wore in real life. The neck is smaller than present on the off-white sweater.
Lightoller is also given an officer’s coat to replace the one he ditched in the water. This new jacket gives Lightoller quite a promotion, with three gold braids on each sleeve, denoting the rank of Chief Officer. Well deserved after the night he had.
Lightoller the Civilian
As the film opens, we see Lightoller and his wife on a train heading for home, gently mocking an ad for Vinolia Otto Toilet Soap. Since the film is in B&W, we can only guess about the color, but it is a medium-shaded three-piece with Edwardian style points. The context and details – such as swelled edges – indicate that it may be a country suit, so it may be a shade of brown as was often worn in the country at the time.
The jacket is single-breasted with notch lapels and a patch breast pocket. The gauntlets are separated from the rest of the sleeve with seams and feature 2 buttons on each cuff. The trousers have a high break and, like his uniform pants, are plain-hemmed with seams running down each leg, held up by a pair of suspenders.
Lightoller’s waistcoat is very Edwardian, with notch lapels and four flapped pockets. It is single-breasted with at least five buttons down the front.
His shirt is very similar to his uniform shirt – white with detachable club collars and French cuffs, fastened with round metal cuff links. He wears a dark necktie with plenty of small white polka dots crowded throughout. The tie is flat across the bottom like some more modern grenadine ties.
Go Big or Go Home
As a disciplined senior officer of the White Star Line, Lightoller was very respectable. He had courtesy, chivalry, and mad nautical skills. He also had balls. I mean, seriously, he had to have a swinging pair the size of grapefruits for the stuff he did. He leapt out of bed (which I can never do, sinking ship or otherwise) and 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 my ass 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 ballsy 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. He gets to the overturned Collapsible B, now floating in the water, and corrals a few men to balance it out and leads around thirty people to safety after the ship sinks.
We, who can’t last five minutes without a full charge on our iPhones or our overpriced coffee cooling down, could learn a lesson from a man like Charles Lightoller.
How to Get the Look
Lightoller’s attire lends some good style tips for any boaters out there or at least men who like navally-inspired wardrobe choices.
- Black wool double-breasted uniform coat with eight brass buttons, peak lapels, breast pocket, jetted hip pockets, double rear vents, and single gold bullion looped stripe cuff insignia
- Black wool flat front trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms
- Off-white 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 ribbed socks
- Black peaked cap with brass White Star Line flag badge and black patent brim
- Black 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
It is 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. The matters for debate are: what weapons were they and did an officer really commit suicide?
The guns were almost certainly Webley revolvers. A Night to Remember portrays the weapons as being the .455-caliber Webley Mk V. Unfortunately, these were first issued to the British military in December 1913 and are slightly anachronistic. However, the first five generations of Webley revolvers were pretty similar, each being a six-round break-action .455 Webley with a 4″ barrel. In the film, Lightoller uses his to prevent a rush on the last lifeboat, Collapsible D, struggling to draw it from his right hip pocket of his coat.
In real life, Murdoch and Lightoller definitely had Webleys, with others 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 committed suicide?” game, as shown in Cameron’s Titanic, A Night to Remember omits any suicide since it wasn’t a confirmed fact by 1958 (and still isn’t by 2013). If this is something you’re at all curious in, a great article by 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.
Do Yourself A Favor And…
Buy the movie. A Night to Remember is one of my favorite movies of all time. I got the Criterion DVD in 2009 and have watched it at least 12 times (no exaggeration) since then, including my annual watching on April 14th. Please, I beg of you, buy the DVD – which has been remastered since I received my original copy and, since 2012, has been available in full, beautiful HD. It’s an excellent movie and one of the few that can really tug at my emotions.
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. Get your hands on a copy.
As the Carpathia approaches, Lightoller and Col. 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.
Col. Gracie: Aren’t you glad to see [Carpathia]?
Lightoller: Yes, I’m glad. But then,I’m still alive.
Col. 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.
Some of you may recall that, for Halloween in 7th grade, I was Robert Redford’s character in The Sting. Three years earlier, I was Second Officer Lightoller for Halloween. If I can find a photo, I will attach.
Keep an eye out for BAMF Style friend Sean Connery as an anonymous bearded deckhand at around the 1 hour 8 minute mark.