Remember the Titanic With These Movies
Some movies have told the Titanic's story better than others.
On April 15th, 1912, the greatest ship the world had ever known sank in the north Atlantic on its maiden voyage.
A hundred years later, the Titanic still remains with us, in memory, history, legend, and as a rusting, disintegrating ruin two and a half miles down on the bottom of the ocean.
With the re-release in theatres of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster (now upgraded to 3-D), part of a phalanx of commemorative events to help honor the Centenary anniversary of the great ship’s demise, the legend of the RMS Titanic is poised to remain with us for the next hundred years.
The cold Atlantic waters had scarcely closed over the Titanic’s massive stern before the first film version of the tragedy flickered on movie screens a mere month after the tragedy.
Titled Saved From the Titanic, and running all of nine minutes, it starred and was co-written by actual survivor Dorothy Gibson. The next three decades would find three other notable films that carried on the Titanic story—Atlantic in 1929, Cavalcade in 1933 and, most curious of all, S.O.S. Titanic in 1943.
This latter was a WW2-era German propaganda film, in which a German officer in the ship’s crew ends up saving the day, though not the ship itself. After all, propaganda can only twist the truth so much!
The 1950s postwar era would see two major films about the disaster, one from Hollywood and one from Great Britain.
The Hollywood version, titled Titanic (1953), starred Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. It was a typical '50s melodrama with the added window dressing of a famous disaster. A serviceable enough film, but little was done, however, to give the movie any sense of authenticity.
All that would change with the release in 1958 of A Night to Remember. Starring Kenneth More, Honor Blackman and a host of fine British character actors, the filmmakers went to great lengths to remain as faithful to the historical facts as possible.
Everything from set design to costuming was based on reference photos of the time. Producer William McQuitty (who saw the launching of the Titanic when he was a mere lad of three), pulled out all the stops to make what many consider to be the definitive version of the Titanic tragedy.
A number of other films over the next few decades would feature the Titanic story in one way or another, starting with The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964 starring Debbie Reynolds as the eponymous heroine who earned her moniker by surviving the event; the 1978 TV film S.O.S. Titanic starring Susan Saint James and David Warner; Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) which puts the time traveling main characters in a notably funny scene on board the infamous vessel.
The discovery of the wreck in 1985 gave rise to a number of documentaries in lieu of dramatic films, but in 1996 a modestly budgeted TV mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg called Titanic was broadcast starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Peter Gallagher as a pair of beautiful-looking passengers who have eyes for each other. Modest in all respects, the film is ultimately undone by an absurd subplot involving a sinister crewman played with hammy, mustache-twirling glee by Tim Curry.
The only real film to truly give the 1958 version a run for its money as the preeminent Titanic film is, of course, James Cameron’s wildly ambitious, special effects-laden edition first released in 1997 and now back in theatres in 3-D to wow audiences again.
Cameron’s version takes full advantage of the leaps made in digital effects technology as well as information and images gleaned from the wreck site itself which he photographed with specially-designed cameras (and seamlessly intercut with models), giving his film a sense of realism heretofore unattainable.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of this greatest of all sea disasters, it may be useful to take a step back and try to understand how such an event came to pass.
The arrogance of technology which led to the “unsinkable” ship that foundered on its first voyage; the class distinctions of the day that saw both gallantry and cowardice in evidence even as the third class passengers bore the brunt of victimization; the ongoing debate about just what was the root cause of the tragedy (brittle steel, bad rivets, poor seamanship) and its ultimate impact on our world today.
While there may never be another tragedy quite like the Titanic, as long as there is human nature there will still be those events which will occasionally shake us to our core. And while it’s true that great sorrow can often lead to great art, I think we can all agree that it is a very big price to pay.