Legendary writer/director James Cameron is forever pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. Whether it’s the liquid metal of the T1000 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day or the fully realised world of Pandora in Avatar, Jim is crafting visual spectacle after visual spectacle So it was perhaps inevitable that he would choose to create a romantic blockbuster set aboard the RMS Titanic. Of course, the story behind the production is well known and documented at this point. James Cameron has had an interest in shipwrecks for years, particularly the aforementioned vessel, and essentially drafted the script to finance an expedition to the site of the greatest tragedy in cruiseliner history. Then the film itself went on to become one of the most successful of all time, winning 11 Academy Awards and grossing $1.8 billion in it’s initial theatrical run (the first film to ever do so). In the years since, it’s received several re-releases including in 3D and 4K, which has resulted in the box office takings increasing to $2.2billion. However, the thing that is perhaps most amazing of all is just how respectful James Cameron is of the subject matter.
The love story itself, between First Class teen Rose and Third Class rapscallion Jack, is entirely fictional. It often receives the most praise and with the most consistency, which is for good reason. It’s a beautiful Hamlet-esque romance between two teens of different stature who can never be together but with the added tragedy that we know how the overall tale ends. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are perfectly cast and fill these characters with such life and love that it’s difficult not to root for them despite it all. Yet, surrounding this fake tale, is one that is horrifically true. The RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on April 10th, 1912 with around 3,330 lives aboard and sank 5 days later having struck an iceberg. There were 706 survivors. The ship herself now sits in two separate pieces at the bottom of the Atlantic, having split across the bow as she went under. These words really don’t do the event any justice but witnessing a recreation of it really hits home. It hits even harder when experiencing it on the big screen, which fully envelops the audience in all aspects of the horror…including the noise.
Despite featuring a fake love story, the accuracy of this depiction is as close as it’s possible to get. From the measurements of the boat, to the lack of lifeboats, to the amount of lives aboard, to the physics of the crash and timing of the entire ordeal. Underneath the “Hollywood Blockbuster” of it all is essentially a docu-drama, but Cameron didn’t stop with the statistics. Reportedly, many of the extras who had lines in the aftermath of the crash were based on relatives of actual survivors and several well documented fates made their way in too. The most well known of these is the elderly couple laying on the bed as the water gushes in, who were Rosalie Ida and Isidor Straus, owners of Macy’s department store in New York. Moments like these are utterly heart-wrenching to watch because they make the disaster much more personable. There’s a danger around great tragedies of history that over time they will be reduced to statistics, even the deaths, but keeping these stories alive prevents that from happening. It’s hard to empathise with statistics but with real stories come real emotions. That’s what Titanic does, underneath everything else, is memorialise those who were lost and honours those who were lucky enough to make it back.
It also does an excellent job of demonstrating the class divide. Roses story hinges on just how stuffy and overbearing a first class life can be, especially as a teenage girl whose only job is to get married, have children, and maintain respectability. Her explanations to Jack at supper in First Class about how this society functions are enlightening and act as a perfect contrast to the parties enjoyed by those in Third Class. There, they spill their beers, dance like nobody’s watching and holler to their hearts content…living life to the fullest. Their sensibilities are also well demonstrated after the crash. While those in First Class have no idea that anything is wrong, only experiencing a slight jolt, those in Third Class are already ankle-deep in water and making their escape. As is always the case, the poorest experience the problems long before the richest. Though the film features them being held behind gates, there’s no evidence that Third Class passengers were prevented from reaching the lifeboats, but since they were so far down they (and the stewards) would have been the last to get there.
It’s one of several inaccuracies, which like the event itself are well documented. There’s no proof that the Titanic was ever called unsinkable, or that Captain Smith chose to go down with her, or that the final song played by the band was Nearer My God to Thee (although it was definitely one of the last.). These are all just small artistic liberties, added into the plot to give it more weight and finality, which it does superbly. The sinking of the ship, intercut with the band playing that fateful hymn, and Captain Smith awaiting his fate on the bridge, are some of the most impactful moments ever put to screen. One of the most frequent criticisms of the film, and of Titanic stories in general, is the villainisation of J Bruce Ismay, the president of the company that built the Titanic. In the film, he is shown ordering the captain to use every one of the engines to get the ship to full speed, but again there’s no real proof that this happened. This idea seems to be based on his survival and, at the time of the tragedy, anger that he had taken a spot on lifeboats designated primarily for women and children, although reports of how this happened are foggy. Either he was ordered to by a steward, or he was one of the first to board, or he waited until the last possible second – which is the interpretation that Cameron goes with. This version of Ismay isn’t evil, just a conflicted man determined to show off before humility overcomes him. The final shot of him isn’t one of a coward or a villain, but of a guilt-stricken survivor.
James Cameron’s Titanic remains a masterpiece. It’s a marvelous love story, beautifully shot and stunningly scored. It’s also a respectful reminder of those lost and those who survived.
2 thoughts on “Titanic (1997)”
That was a nice review. Titanic holds several memories for me. It was during the production that I discovered the web site ‘Ain’t it cool news” and saw pictures of the Titanic recreation that were taken from a distance. My first ever first into the world of film spy photos. I haven’t watched the film since I bought the deluxe 4DVD set. I remember living the actual sinking and the technical recreation of it all. If there’s one thing I won’t forget, it’s that poor CGI passenger who falls from the ship and bongs off that propeller on the way down. Ouch!