Titanic Movies

Re-post from 2013:

April 14, 1912, 11:40 p.m., the Titanic hit an iceberg.

April 15, 1912, 2:20 a.m., the Titanic sank.

Every decade since . . . someone produces a movie about the Titanic.

Actually, that's putting it mildly. Movies about the Titanic are like chick-flick movies: so many and yet . . . how can they ever really end differently?

RedLetterMedia reviews James Cameron's version. Below are a few more (as well as James Cameron's Titanic), starting with the latest television miniseries:

Titanic (2012)
Steven Waddington as Lightoller
This miniseries came out in 2012. It got almost no press. I only learned about it because I recently rewatched The Last of the Mohicans, and I wanted to know what became of Steven Waddington. What became of him is he ended up in a miniseries based on the Titanic; he plays pretty much the same character as in The Last of the Mohicans: the reliable, honorable Britisher (with a few flaws).

The miniseries has an interesting construction--each episode (there are 4) takes us back to the first day of sailing; each time we follow a different series of stories that overlap with stories already told or stories being continued. The most interesting story in my mind is the relationship between a ladies' maid and gentleman's valet. It's a sort of The Remains of the Day--on the ocean.
Two servants with an interesting story
This brings us to the main problem with these types of miniseries; they are soap operas on water. The events could take place just about anywhere: an island (with a mad man); a snow-bound villa at the top of the Swiss Alps (with a mad man); a boat floating down the Nile (with a couple of killers).

Okay, those are all Agatha Christie settings, but the same rules apply: dysfunctional people struck suddenly by tragedy--in this case, a boat that can't float.

Like with all of these miniseries, the writers utilize classic narrative requirements (problem, rising action) . . . right up until the boat actually sinks at which point, they are faced with a conundrum: pay off the narratives or allow for the randomness of tragedy?

The writers inevitably opt for randomness, possibly because they are afraid that if they don't, they will be accused of sugarcoating a terrible event. But such randomness plays havoc with everything else the writers have written. (And the truth is, most people's problems don't get instantly "solved" by a cataclysmic disaster.)

I do have to give kudos to this miniseries for maintaining its theme: the cruelty and pointlessness of the British class system. The theme is maintained at the expense of the facts (the 3rd class passengers were NOT locked below; no distinctions were made between members of various classes while the officers were loading the lifeboats--they simply wanted people to get off the Titanic). However, there are some fairly insightful scenes, such as the servants' dinner in which the servants are as snobbish about rank, if not more-so, than the actual aristocracy. 

And the movie ends with an image of classless solidarity--the survivors are marked not by their status but by their survival.

Other points of accuracy (or lack thereof): Captain Smith is portrayed surprisingly accurately. Murdoch's reputation is restored. Lightoller is portrayed as something of a flirt, which he really wasn't, but since he and his wife are now dead, I don't suppose anyone minds much.

Captain Rostron
My biggest complaint is that not a single story-line refers to or portrays the wireless operators. We see the stokers, the waiters, the servants of the passengers, and the servants for the passengers (as well as the servants for the servants). But not the wireless operators. I was flabbergasted. It's kind of like showing a movie about D-Day and just kind of leaving out references to Ultra. Or the RAF. I mean, huh?

The miniseries I would really like to see next: the Carpathia's response to the Titanic with Captain Rostron as the well-deserved hero!
James Cameron's Titanic (1997)
This is the movie that got me interested in the Titanic. I knew the Titanic sank, but I knew nothing else until I watched the movie when it came out in the theaters.
David Warner as Billy Zane's Go-To-Guy
And I was hooked!
I didn't care for the love story, especially since most of the time, I was rooting for Billy Zane and David Warner, but I was enthralled by the sinking: was it accurate? not accurate? what really happened?

Answer: the ship is nearly 100% accurate.

Everything else is about -10% accurate (my problem isn't with the inaccuracies per se; very few "historical" films are entirely accurate; my problem is with glaring and boring inaccuracies that are also stupid and vaguely dishonest--see below).

So inaccurate in some cases that Twentieth Century Fox ended up apologizing to the Town of Dalbeattie for slandering Commander Murdoch's good name: he did NOT shoot any 3rd class passengers (the few 3rd class passengers who found their way to the upper decks were not kept off the lifeboats); he certainly did NOT shoot himself (no guns were fired at all, only flares). Like a good British officer, he went down with the ship. Since Cameron blithely merged various officers' behavior, I can't help but ask, Why didn't Cameron change Murdoch's name?

Still, the movie got me hooked on Titanic, so I suppose it did its job.
National Geographic Video: Secrets of the Titanic 
This documentary tells the story of Bob Ballard et al. finding the Titanic. It is interesting but not quite as much fun as some of Ballard's other ocean treks, such as his exploration of the Lusitania. He is so darn reverent about the Titanic! I don't know if I'm a realist, a pragmatist or cold-blooded, but I have trouble thinking of a disintegrating hunk of metal on the bottom of the ocean floor as anything more or less than a disintegrating hunk of metal. Very cool. But not endowed with any more properties or meaning than its material self. (If I were to show reverence to the drowned passengers, I'd much rather go to Halifax than down in a submersible--but then I get terribly seasick on the open ocean.)
A Night to Remember, based on the book (1958)
This movie is quite good but rather impersonal. There's about fifteen minutes of intro and then the ship starts sinking. It is the most accurate movie out there and does a great job showcasing the brave, efficient, and reliable Commander Lightoller.

Unfortunately, the movie's impersonal accuracy makes it more like a documentary than a story, yet a documentary without the benefit of Ballard's discovery: the ship broke in two as it sank. Interestingly enough, there were passengers who thought the ship might have broken in two as it went down; however, the bulk of the survivors thought it went down in one piece, so that's what the movie shows. See this very cool CGI rendering to see how the Titanic did go down.
S.O.S. Titanic (1979)
This TV movie provides the pleasant surprise of Helen Mirren. David Warner shows up (again or, rather, first since this movie came out several years before Cameron's) as Lawrence Beesley, a passenger. In fact, the movie is mostly told from the passengers' points of view which is good because the crew's points of view contain far more inaccuracies.

Unfortunately, the stories don't hold together. Eventually, well, the ship sinks, so the movie ends.
One neat thing this TV movie does do is remember the 2nd class passengers--which is a first. Ha Ha.
Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck (1953)
Stanwyck plays an American woman who marries a pompous English man, then decides (18 years later) that her children are growing up to be prigs, so she has to take them back to Michigan or Minnesota (some place cold) to restore them to wholesome goodness. Her husband, played by the marvelously urbane Clifton Webb, follows her on board.

Eventually, the ship sinks and the husband proves that he is a pukka sahib when he goes down with the ship belting "Nearer My God to Thee" with all the other male passengers.

I recently re-watched this movie. The first half is actually pretty good; the characters are inaccurate but engaging. And the information about the missing binoculars and the iceberg telegrams is reasonably correct. Clifton Webb has great dialog and delivery; Barbara Stanwyck gives a stunning performance, and the marvelous Thelma Ritter (from Rear Window) shows up.
However, the second half of the movie is completely spoiled by the most annoying air raid siren noise in the world. Imagine listening to nails on blackboards for nearly 30 minutes. It makes the movie almost unbearable. And it's pointless. There was no air raid noise on the boat. Since the movie attempted verisimilitude with the telegrams, why give up the pretense for an unnecessary sound that makes the movie almost unwatchable? It's very odd. 
Titanic starring George C. Scott and Tim Curry (1996)
This TV movie is completely awful. It is fairly well-written: the passenger stories have continuity and the scenery is well-done. The accurate bits are REALLY accurate, indicating that there may have been an "expert" on the set who insisted on inserting accurate information at various places.

Still, it's horrible. The passengers are thoroughly unpleasant from two ex-lovers who take the opportunity to commit adultery to a villain/rapist played with excellent but unwatchable sleaziness by Tim Curry. I kept hoping Billy Zane would show up and start shooting people.


a calvinist preacher said...

I've often wondered why this fascination with the Titanic. Is it the braggadocio of the builders? That it was the maiden voyage? Or that it was sunk by an iceberg rather than storms or rocks or torpedoes? I can't think it's the human drama as one finds that on almost every instance of a ship sinking no matter how far from shore or the cause of its sinking. I haven't been able to figure that out, but it's a curious thing.

Kate Woodbury said...

It is puzzling! Here are my two theories for the Titanic's enduring popularity:

(1) It occurred at the beginning of the modern news era. Because of wireless, people knew the Titanic had struck an iceberg before it arrived in New York, but no one was sure exactly what had happened. In the scoop of the century, The New York Times called the outcome correctly and propelled the newspaper to stardom.

Survivors' accounts came out immediately afterwards. Lawrence Beesley's account was published the same year as the sinking. Archibald Gracie published his account in 1913. And then Walter Lord wrote his book in 1955, which got everyone excited again!

(2) The Titanic seems to encapsulate every narrative and theme under the sun! Because the ship's sinking was inevitable but took time, there are 2+ hours of stories and interpretations: heroism (Rostron; the wireless operators), conspiracy (the Californian; the treatment of the 3rd class passengers), hubris (first voyage; lack of lifeboats), a wealthy scapegoat (Ismay), glamor, fate, class-consciousness, hidden treasure/lost ship . . . And (referring back to #1), these stories immediately became part of the American psyche with the Titanic Disaster Hearings (such an American thing to do).

Of course, using the Titanic as a narrative is fairly useless, but it seems (from the outside) so full of potential! Which makes me wonder whether the news stories that last aren't necessarily the ones with the biggest names or most glamorous settings or even scariest bad guys, but the ones with the most urban legend material. Every reader is secretly thinking, Will this make a good story to relate at the next dinner party?

Does the human race actually owe its multiple communication strategies to the need and desire for gossip!?

FreeLiveFree said...

Why certain historical events or people become famous is an interesting question. Some events you think would be famous aren't. Ever hear of The Battle of Castle Itter during WWII? Where a combine force of American troops, WEHRMACT troops who had thrown in with the anti-nazi resistence, a group of politicians, a professional tennis player, and a WAFFEN SS officer fought on the same side in one of the last battles in Germany.


The only real media presence this has is that the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton did a song about it. You'd think there would be at least one movie.