I confess to a brief, but productive, obsession with the Titanic shortly after Cameron's movie appeared. I wasn't concerned with the ill-starred romance of the leading characters, but I did want to learn more about the ship itself. My voyage led me from Exploring the Titanic by Robert D. Ballard (he headed the crew that rediscovered the ship in 1985) to Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady, a Dear America book by Ellen Emerson White. I read newspaper articles about teenage girls visiting Titanic cemeteries in Halifax. I made dinners based on Titanic recipes. And I rented a lot of movies.
I'll start with the worst which is Titanic (1996), starring, amongst others, George C. Scott and Tim Curry. This is a "many stories in one" movie (think Independence Day): two ex-lovers meet after many years and have a passionate but oddly unsympathetic affair; a thief is reformed by a young woman from steerage; a nanny takes a baby on board a lifeboat, leaving her employer and employer's daughter behind. And finally, there is the villain, Tim Curry.
There is no over-arcing plot line (other than the sinking ship, of course). Even the villain does nothing in particular until he rapes the young woman. The rape has all the savage pointlessness of true rape and underscores the pointlessness of the entire movie; you feel that it was stuck in for the sake of having something happen (because ships hitting ice bergs just aren't enough!). The villain's sudden leap into depravity is less than credible. In comparison, Billy Zane's character appears a profound examination of human fallibility, and I kept wishing he would show up and start shooting people. It would have been much-needed relief to dialog that is less creative than a Harlequin romance. [MUCH less creative; Harlequin romances are actually quite well-written.]
S.O.S. Titanic (1979) is somewhat better, only because of its phenomenal and underused cast: Helen Mirren, David Warner (as Lawrence Beasley for you Titanic buffs) and Ian Holm (as an overwrought Ismay). Underused is an understatement. Helen Mirren appears in three scenes and has barely enough lines to fill a lifeboat. The movie is told mostly from the passengers' point of view and is reasonably accurate. In fact, S.O.S. Titanic is one of the few movies to show the second class passengers. Most movies ignore them or, as with Cameron, include them but never explain who they are; in Cameron's movie, the young woman who accosts a steward in the hallway and asks him what is going on is a second class passenger.
Titanic (1953) with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck also ignores the second class but achieves, at least, a cohesive plot. An American woman (Stanwyck) is unhappily married to a pompous English man (performed with effortless sarcasm and provocative eyebrows by Clifton Webb). Her children, she decides, are turning into prigs and must be returned to the wholesome U.S.A. as soon as possible (to Michigan or Minnesota or Montana—somewhere cold). Her husband follows her on board and family rows ensue until the ship starts to sink, and everyone becomes overwhelmingly fond of each other. There is a scene where the sinking passengers bellow "Near My God To Thee" at the top of their lungs. Throw in stiff upper lips, plush gowns, magnificent furs, eyes meeting across the lifeboats plus a high-pitched emergency siren and you have Titanic (1953).
A Night to Remember (1958) returns us to the plot-device of vignettes. It is the most accurate of the movies except for a few howlers that were, at the time, non-preventable. Due to Robert J. Ballard and the National Geographic Society, we know now that the ship split in two rather than going down in one piece. It is doubtful whether the ship came apart as dramatically as portrayed by Cameron. Nevertheless, the possibility is missing from A Night to Remember.
A Night to Remember does have the best hero: the true-to-life Lightoller, played by Kenneth More. The remarkable Lightoller behaved with aplomb while the ship was sinking. He literally went down with the ship and lasted out the night on top of a overturned lifeboat with a dozen or more other fellows. Unfortunately, aside from Lightoller, the movie has no central plot or character, nothing to hold the viewer's interest. The reality of all Titanic films is that the Reckoning is inevitable. It is what happens before the Reckoning that provides drama, which means each movie must contain truly sympathetic and compelling characters. The script writers can't rely on Keanu Reeves showing up with his ninja moves or on Bruce Willis blowing up a building. The characters are everything.
And the lack of compelling characters is a major snag in all the above movies plus Cameron's. The Cameron production gains the audience's sympathy (for those of us who aren't hoping Billy Zane will shoot Jack) through the use of soppy romance. However, other than Victor Garber as Thomas Andrews, everyone (including the hero and heroine) behaves hysterically. This isn't compelling; it's just tiresome. Cameron (who, in general, I quite like) went for very bold strokes. At times, his bold strokes get downright soul-destroying. There is no evidence, for example, that Murdoch shot himself or any one else, and his home town was notably and justifiably ticked off by that part of the movie.
The worst factual crime of Cameron's movie, however, is the plot device that the third class passengers were deliberately locked into steerage. The truth is not only more human but more distressing. They were forgotten about until it was too late.
In fact, like all human dramas, there was more apathy on board the true Titanic than has been caught in any of the films. People simply did not believe the ship was going to sink. Connie Willis has illustrated this aspect of the Titanic excellently in her fiction book Passage, and it is perhaps appropriate that I end my review with the following suggestion:
Good books about the Titanic:
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
Passage by Connie Willis (fiction)
"Unsinkable": The Full Story of the RMS Titanic by Daniel Butler
The Story Of The Titanic - As Told By Its Survivors by Lawrence, Beesley; Gracie, Archibald; Lightoller, Commander; Bride, Harold (edited by Winocour and Jack Beesley)
Last Dinner on the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Legendary Liner by Dana McCauley
Voyage on the Great Titanic: The Diary of Margaret Ann Brady by Ellen Emerson White (fiction)