The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Film Data

Country: UK / USA
Release date: 23 September 1979
Director: William Hale
Cast: David Janssen, Cloris Leachman and Susan Saint James

Plot: On April 14, 1912 the R.M.S. Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage. Over 1500 people were lost. This docudrama follows the personal stories of some of the passengers and crew aboard on that fateful night. John Jacob Astor and his new bride Madeline, Laurence Beesley, Molly Brown, a group of Irish emigrants, the wireless operators and the stewards are among the characters.

Trivia: Many scenes were filmed on board or around the famous RMS Queen Mary.

S.O.S. Titanic (1979)
Paul Young

Paul Young as “Joseph Murdoch”

The next two major films regarding Titanic did not follow the example set by the British in 1958. The 1979 S.O.S Titanic relegated the maritime disaster to the backdrop of a soap opera, involving school teacher Lawrence Beesley and a fellow second class passenger. Actor Paul Young plays the role of Murdoch (listed as “First Officer: Joseph Murdoch” in the credits!), incorrectly depicted with a moustache (which Murdoch had actually removed circa 1911) and an overly pronounced English accent (certainly when playing someone of Scottish descent). Interestingly, David Warner, who has the lead role as Beesley, went on to also appear in James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).

Smith with his senior officers (Murdoch second from right)

The role of First Officer is merely confined to a few brief shots of him before the night of the tragedy. His most imporant scene is the 10pm change over and the collision. Taking over from Lightoller, they briefly discuss temperature, weather and sea conditions and then:

Murdoch: Captain in his cabin, is he?
Lightoller: Yes. We are doing just over twenty-two knots at present.
Murdoch: Not bad for a twenty-one knot ship.
Lightoller: He said if it becomes the least bit hazy we will be obliged to slow down.
Murdoch: I understand
Lightoller: His order is that he is to be woken up at once if there is any noticable change.

When Moody relays the call from the lookout, Murdoch is apparently inside the navigation bridge and immediately responds with “hard-a-starboard” changing the engine telegraph to full astern. As the Titanic nears the iceberg, Murdoch is a guilty face hidden among shadows, betraying no emotion, just a fixed glare.

The 10pm change over with Lightoller;
and Murdoch watching the iceberg approach.

As the evacuation takes place, there are a few shots of Murdoch launching lifeboats, with Ismay assisting. In response to Ismay’s concerns, Murdoch replies: “I can’t force the women in, can I?. I can’t hit them over the head if they don’t want to go.”

Later, Captain Smith calls Murdoch over for a quiet word:

Captain Smith: “How many boats left over here Mr. Murdoch?
Murdoch: “Two sir.”
Captain Smith: “Make sure they are filled to absolute capacity.”

For the first time in cinema history, Murdoch is shown using a gun, firing it during a stampede on a boat being lowered (possibly collapsible C). Unfortunately, it appears to take place on the PORT side, Murdoch rushing down from the port-side wing bridge, pulling out his revolver and shouting “Stay back! Stay well back!” He then fires his gun three times into the air, then says something to the effect of “No one forces their way through here… I don’t care who he is…” and fires his gun twice more.

Above, from the top: Captain Smith (Harry Andrews) has a
quiet word with Murdoch about lifeboat capacity; Murdoch fires
a gun into the air to ward off stampeding passengers.

Later, when Ismay makes his move, Murdoch and Wilde watch him take a seat in the boat and whisper to one another in surprise. Only a few seconds before they had been calling: “Is there any more women and children –this may be your last chance!” Several officers are shown attempting to launch one of the collapsible lifeboats. It is hard to see if one of these is Murdoch. However the whole scene is detroyed by bad editing, showing the forward boat deck completely underwater and yet cutting back to see officers attempting to free a collapsible (which of course would be completely underwater!).

Several unidentified officers (possibly Murdoch)
struggle with a collapsible.

Interestingly, in the Scotland on Sunday of 8th March, 1998, Paul Young was quoted as saying: “My Murdoch drowned doing his duty, - no question of suicide. ‘SOS Titanic’ was also made by Americans, with Helen Mirren and David Janssen on board. But there was no question of the script portraying Mr. Murdoch as anything other than what he was, - an extremely correct, dutiful and brave officer. I’m amazed to hear Murdoch has been portrayed as a murderer, apart from anything else.” (Richatrd Edkins, Murdoch of the Titanic) (1.).