Titanic Everywhere

The subject of the Titanic disaster makes for endless commentary. The ship went down in 1912, but once it was precisely located on the ocean floor in the 1980s the story of its demise has inspired an orgy of new coverage. The star attraction of that coverage, of course, was, and remains, the 1997 James Cameron film, Titanic. It's been available on video for some time, but is now out in a new, pristine, and freshly-transferred Ultra HD version. That release is superb, but almost too good as I was occasionally aware of its not entirely transparent use of CGI.

Some aspects of the 1997 film are certainly spectacular; the actual sinking in particular (spoiler*), which plays strongly into director James Cameron's obvious filmmaking skill. Parts of the Jack and Rose romance that drive the plot are deeply moving as well. These include the scene with them at the bow of the ship, Jack and Rose's final parting, and the finale's dreamlike scene as they and their fellow passengers and crew gather together once more. And the late James Horner's magnificent score might well be his best work.

But I'm always put off by scenes featuring Rose's mustache-twirling fiance and his evil henchman. This is topped off in a sequence in which Rose frees Jack from his below-decks shackles while the water rises around them. There's also the laugh-inducing line of dialogue as Jack overhears a discussion about the status of the ship and exclaims "This is bad!" No sh--ugar, Sherlock!

Nevertheless, the movie remains a classic and a treat for anyone seeing it for the first time — or the tenth, like me! For many viewers it has spawned a lifelong interest in the Titanic disaster. But it wasn't the first, or only, film on the subject. There was the 1958 black and white British film A Night to Remember, based on the Walter Lord book of the same name. It's superb, though far less ambitious than Cameron's multi-Oscar-winning effort.

A Night to Remember adheres closely to the known facts. The Titanic's Captain Smith is given more depth and is less passive than in Cameron's film. Which depiction is correct we'll never know for certain, but the limited evidence leans toward Cameron's version of a ship's Captain in a state of shock. While Smith was well regarded by both his employers and the seagoing public, in his long career (he planned to retire after the Titanic's maiden voyage) he had never before experienced anything close to a life and death disaster. There's also no Jack and Rose romance in A Night to Remember either; it might surprise some fans to hear that they're purely fictional characters!

But the part of the story that Cameron's film omits was the Californian, a smaller British liner that had stopped that night to avoid ice and at full steam was apparently only an hour or so from Titanic. But the Californian failed to provide assistance until the following day when it was far too late. The reasons for this remain highly controversial, but the event destroyed the reputation of the Californian's captain, Stanley Lord (no relation to Walter Lord), who spent the rest of his life trying to restore his good name. He continued to insist that the ship they saw in the distance that night was not the Titanic.

The wireless operator on the Californian had shut down his wireless for the night just before the Titanic began sending out distress calls. A puzzling part of the Californian story is why its captain didn't simply order their wireless turned back on when they spotted a nearby. If they had re-engaged the wireless they'd have heard Titanic's distress calls! A Night to Remember devotes significant time to the Californian story line; Cameron does not, perhaps because his film was already running long.

Wireless communication via Morse code was new to shipping at the time, so 24-hour monitoring, or even having wireless on a ship at all, was strictly optional. And when a ship did have wireless it was common for the operator to simply turn it off at night before going to bed. In fact, the wireless gear was owned by wireless companies and not by the shipping lines, and was used mainly for passengers to send and receive paid personal messages. The wireless operators were employed by a wireless company and not by the shipping line. They were paid by the message, which may be why the Titanic's wireless operator was so irritated when his passenger message duties were interrupted by ice warnings.

There was also a 1943 Nazi propaganda film, Titanic, produced in Germany during WWII. It featured a fictional German second officer aboard the ship, who together with a few German passengers displayed more calm and bravery than the grasping and panicked British ship's captain, officers, and passengers. But the film was never shown to the public inside Germany; by the time of its release the ongoing Allied bombing raids deemed the film's grim subject matter counterproductive for German viewers. The film had originally been scheduled to at least launch in Berlin (for what I assume was a carefully selected audience!) but the theater was bombed the day before the premier!

Those interested enough can find endless coverage of the Titanic disaster on YouTube and Google, as well as videos for download and/or purchase on Amazon. Some of this content might be good but others not so much. I haven't seen most of it; I'm interested in the subject but not obsessed!

I was fascinated, however, by the YouTube entry, Investigating the Titanic-Drain the Oceans . In A Night to Remember the ship goes down intact, but that was before the wreckage was discovered and studied. The latter then produced the breakup prior to full submerge theory you'll see in Cameron's film. But more recently other researchers, using unmanned sensors to digitally map the wreckage site plus the entire debris field, and assembling all together digitally (an exhaustive process), have concluded that the Titanic didn't break up on the surface. Had it done so, they argue, the debris field would have been wider. But this new theory apparently remains controversial.

One video I can recommend (and have written about previously) is the miniseries Titanic: Blood and Steel. If you can overlook the lengthy padding that fills out most miniseries', and that this one ends prior to the maiden voyage and sinking, it provides a dramatized but nonetheless interesting commentary on the actual design and building of the ship.

Finally, I can strongly recommend an outstanding DVD documentary from the 1990s titled Titanic Death of a Dream. It was never released on Blu-ray. Its DVD resolution is variable, but that's more due to the use of archival footage than to the medium. It's brilliantly narrated by David McCallum, who played one of the Titanic's two wireless operators in A Night to Remember), and covers every important detail from the building of the ship to the formal, post-accident legal inquiries. I'm tempted to claim that it's even more engrossing and compelling than Cameron's movie, despite being clearly bettered by the latter's action and audio/video quality.

Titanic Death of a Dream is listed on YouTube, but when I tried to access it there the result was only a few short and useless excerpts. So the 2+ hour DVD is the only full version I could find. While it's pricey ($85!) and possibly in short supply, it's worth every penny to the Titanic enthusiast, or indeed to anyone who appreciates a superb documentary (fortunately I acquired my copy years ago at a then unassuming DVD price). But finding it on Amazon among the glut of other Titanic entries may be difficult. To that end I've included its cover art at the top of this blog.

* I can still recall a newspaper cartoon from around the time of the 1997 film's first release. Two couples are standing in line at a ticket window. The older man at the front turns to his wife and comments that he's anxious to see the film as he's heard that the sinking scenes are spectacular. The young teen behind him exclaims, "The ship sinks?! Thanks for ruining it for us!"

samui's picture

Planning a bachelorette party full info in Titanic style is a unique and exciting idea! Picture yourself stepping back into the elegance of the Edwardian era. Start with themed invitations, and ask the ladies to dress as first-class passengers or even as Jack and Rose. Arrange for a sophisticated dinner with dishes inspired by the Titanic's menu and cocktails from the era. Don't forget the music from the iconic soundtrack! Recreate the famous "King of the World" scene on the deck and organize fun games related to the movie. It'll be a bachelorette party they'll never forget!

dommyluc's picture

You forgot the 1953 Fox movie "Titanic", starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. Total melodrama, historically inaccurate, so-so special effects, but a great cast and still a lot of fun, although it's no "A Night To Remember".

And I still think if the 1997 "Titanic" was 105 minutes long, it would have been a masterpiece. It's hard to tell a 3 hour+ story when the audience already knows the ending.

AndrewDrouin's picture

How might I be able to communicate with Thomas J. Norton himself? I seek to learn if there are still come copies (paper or since digitized) versions of his original paper publication StereOpus available. A Google search comes up empty... Tnx. Andrew andrewdrouin "at" gmail.com

bafoho18's picture

The mustache-twirling villain and a few cringe-worthy lines remind us that perfection is elusive even in cinematic classics. | https://www.jacksonvillencdrywall.com

Ehto's picture

Now this is a Titanic deep-dive I can sink my teeth into. Who knew James Cameron’s “Titanic” was just the tip of the iceberg! Thank you Thomas for bringing up this fascinating story from the depths. I can’t wait to share it with my team at the office in Gutter Cleaning Coventry on Monday. Happy sailing!

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joedavidson's picture

Titanic is one of the classic and great movies I've watched after i
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larrymartin's picture

It is intriguing to see the evolution of Titanic narratives through various films and documentaries. The differing portrayals of Captain Smith and the controversies surrounding the Californians response add depth to the tragic story.
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