S.O.S. Titanic (1979) – A Review

SOS Titanic ABC tv movie 1979
S.O.S. Titanic

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.

SOS Titanic 1979 Susan St. James David Warner

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.

SOS Titanic disaster tv movie 1979

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.

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4 Responses

  1. Raise the Titanic was an interesting also ran during this time frame. It was one of the first "adult" books I read when I was a kid and rushed to see it in the theater when it came out when I was 10 years old. This would be my first experience of a movie having nothing to do with the book. I recently re-watched it at the tender age of 44. It is definitely Velveeta levels of cheese.

  2. Capt. Nemo says:

    The main difference between the longer and shorter versions of S.O.S. Titanic was the Carpathia sequence.

    In the longer version, the Carpathia sequence was at the beginning of the movie. In that one, the Carpathia's wireless operator gets the message and wakes Captain Rothrom. After some confusion and shock, they take off for the area as fast as they can. When they arrive, there's some icebergs and eerie silence. Then suddenly, the Titanic survivors appear around the icebergs and the Carpathia goes into rescue mode.

    After all the passengers are aboard, they tell their story and the rest of movie is told in flashback.

    In the shorter cut, they move the Carpathia sequence to the middle of the movie and the rescue is more of a after thought.

    Where was the sequence when you watched it?

    This movie, in a way, shows why Cameron's movie was so popular. I would call this movie the "Ensemble" technique of telling historic events. Similar to "The Great Escape." In which the movie tries to follow groups of people around a similar event. But as you've said, not everyone in this is very interesting. Which is the danger of doing history movies in a ensemble. You can easily lose focus and not keep you audience engaged.

    I remember seeing David Warner in Cameron's Titanic and I said to myself "My God, He's in another one!" I wonder if he's a big fan of the story?

    • The version I saw the Carpathia was just in the middle, the movie wasn't told in any kind of flashback.

      Whenever they do another Titanic movie I would like to see it focus on the aftermath. Dramatize the hearings and public reactions to the news of the disaster. That seems like it's untapped ground.

    • Capt. Nemo says:

      I've seen both cuts. If you ask me, putting the Carpathia sequence at the beginning was much better. To see the survivors in stunned silence and the Carpathia crew realizing more and more the scope of the tragedy was great drama.

      When you first see Bruce Ismay, he's a broken man. When they flashback he's full of life and proudly showing off what he created.

      Its a shame you didn't get to see that cut.

      As for the aftermath, maybe. I know they scapegoated the steamship Californian's Captain for going back to sleep after the Titanic's distress rockets were reported to him. He spent the rest of his life under that cloud. Even though there was nothing he could have done.

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