I love historical fiction stories. I’ve always been a little bit (ok, big) geek when it comes to history. It was one of my favorite subjects in school and, although I didn’t master it, I always got decent grades in that subject… probably because I have this OCD-esque, savant-ish skill for remembering dates (I tend to freak people out by remembering birthdays of random people). I hate that the sinking of the RMS Titanic was such a disaster and that so many people perished, but it has been a story I’ve been curious about since I was young.
So, for that reason, this movie resonated with me. Not necessarily that it was a great work of art – which it was (more on that later) or that the story was great (eh, there were a few things that didn’t sit well with me, but it wasn’t a bad story)… really, it was the fact that all the details made it seem as though they really were on the ship and that story really *could* have happened.
I credit that to James Cameron. From all I read, he was anal retentive (and, from the sound of it, that description might be a little charitable). However, the years of research, all the money invested, and the amount of time he took on the attention to detail seems to have worked. The film not only won all sorts of accolades, but won 14 Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, both of which this film won “Best Picture”. Overall, it seems to be universal that everyone thought this was a great film.
I do not disagree with the masses.
I have seen this film several times – I saw it in the original release in 1997 in the fall. I was working at a music store at the time and the soundtrack was selling like crazy. People buying it commented on the movie, and one of my friends finally talked me into going to see it. I was really impressed at the time. Years later, I saw it on DVD. Then, most recently, I went to see the 3D IMAX version for the 100th anniversary in preparation for this post (yeah… I know that was 9 months ago, but…) and then I rented it on Amazon because my oldest son was asking a ton of questions about it (including “hey Mom, were you on the Titanic?” …sigh). I have also been to an exhibit at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences with a number of artifacts from the sinking on display – which was a very cool exhibit and I highly recommend it if you get the opportunity to see something like it.
So, my opinion on the work of art: I mentioned before that James Cameron has a bit of a – reputation, let’s say – for having a focused attention to detail. While, for some, that can be annoying (again, being charitable here) to work with, that level of detail produced the kind of film that was worthy of all the awards it received. According to what I’ve found, Cameron started out as a science major in college, but switched over to art. As someone who dabbles in photography (and writing, incidentally), there is cross-over in those disciplines – at least in the arts, there are many uses of science. This film is a great example of that, in my opinion. Being obsessed with shipwrecks, the Titanic specifically, he says he was restless about his curiosity on the topic and approached 20th Century Fox about the idea of making a romantic historical drama based on the sinking of the ship. As part of his pitch, he requested dives of his own to see the wreckage first-hand. The popularity of other dives to the wreckage at the time probably worked in his favor, and he got the deal, including the dives. Promising the executives of a less-expensive and more realistic result probably didn’t hurt his case.
As someone who has to do research for whatever piddly things I write, I have profound appreciation for the amount of time, effort and money he spent on the research of this event. The dives not only gave him perspective (and footage) on the details from the time, but provided the crew with a desire to live up to the experience of the people that actually perished in the wreckage. As a result (and having seen the museum exhibit), I have an even greater appreciation for the details in the film: the dishes, the props, the costumes. Also, it is hard to remember the excitement about this so many years later, but this film was only the second time that the sinking was portrayed as the ship splitting in half and the details of how it sank being central to the opening scenes of the film – an important detail in the telling of the story for me. I also really liked that he placed fictional characters (Cal, Rose, Jack, and Rose’s mother, specifically) in the midst of real passengers on the ship. Kathy Bate’s character “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the captain of the ship, and the quartet that played to the end being some of the more notable and famous actual characters from the film.
At it’s minimum, it the story is a love story between teenagers, set in the midst of a shipwreck. The teenage love story is one most people my age (certainly not old enough to have been on the Titanic, but I can remember what it was like to be in love as a teenager) can relate to. There is a formula to the love story portion of the film: a girl of privilege falls for a poor boy and, although their love ends tragically, she never forgets her first true love.
Most of the story is told in flashback, though, there are a few points mid-film that bring us back to the present day, and it ends present-day with some controversy about the ending – more on that later. The film starts with a diving crew searching for a valuable diamond that was reported lost at sea during the sinking and was never recovered. They discover a sketch of a woman wearing the diamond. An older woman, Rose, sees a story on the news about the sketch and search for the diamond and contacts the crew to tell them she is a survivor of the shipwreck, she’s the woman in the picture, and she knows the whereabouts of the diamond – that it is hers. They bring her on board to tell her story and get information on the diamond. She starts the story of her arrival to the HMS Titanic – she was going back home to the US after a vacation in Europe with her new fiance (Cal) and her mother. She is from a somewhat (formerly, we find out later) aristocratic family and is set up in a private suite paid for by her (currently) aristocratic fiance, who, we find out later, she really can’t stand.
We then learn the story of Jack, a poor boy from Wisconsin who has traveled throughout Europe as a sketch artist and has won a ticket for himself and an Italian boy on the RMS Titanic. He is returning home and the Italian boy is seeking a better life America. Jack sees Rose and falls for her immediately, but is told she’s pretty much off limits because of her social stature.
The first couple of hours after the ship’s departure, we learn about the ship: the designer of the ship takes Rose, her mother and fiance on a tour of the ship and points out all the features of the ship. Later that evening, Rose ends up arguing with Cal and her mother, and runs to the aft of the ship to jump off and commit suicide. Jack sees her and attempts to lure her back on board, only to catch her as she almost falls into the water, thus saving her life. He almost gets arrested for being a hooligan, but Rose insists she slipped and he saved her. As a gesture, Cal invites Jack to dinner with the aristocrats the next evening. Molly Brown provides a suit and he attends the dinner. He’s charming and polite, and has a good time at dinner. During the dinner, we learn a little more about other passengers on the ship (actual passengers). After the dinner, Jack invites Rose to attend a party on the lower decks. She gets away from Cal for the evening and joins Jack and has a great time.
The next morning, Cal confronts Rose about her attending the party on the lower decks and they have a fight. She tells Jack she can’t associate with him any more. However, throughout the day, she decides she can’t stand being with Cal and dislikes her mother using Rose (and her marriage to Cal) as a way to continue to fund their lifestyle, so she seeks out time with Jack. She invites him to her room to sketch her the way he did the women in France (he showed her some of his sketches in an earlier scene). He sketches the picture that was later recovered from the wreckage – and they get caught shortly after he finished the sketch. The spend a lot of time running through the ship avoiding capture only to end in the car storage, getting into someone’s car and making love.
Shortly after this scene is when the ship hits the iceberg and she starts to take on water. I’ll be honest, I had a hard time with this part because a lot of the mechanisms for saving the ship meant closing off safe escape for a number of people on the lower decks. The other part of this that didn’t sit well with me were the aristocrats that did not heed the warning and continued with their dinners or parties, but when shit got real, half filled life boats and left those on the lower decks on the boats because they separated classes. This was after several people in decks below them had already perished. It really bothered me that people think that way about other human beings, so in that respect, I think the way Cameron wrote and portrayed those scenes were well written.
The scenes on deck, I think, accurately depicted the sort of chaos I imagined would happen in that situation. There was a lot of running and screaming and a lot of people scared and confused. I could accurately sense the urgency and the fear those folks must have felt in that situation, especially the parents that were trying to save their children – and having to be separated from them. The part of the scene when the ship reached the breaking point, however, was amazing to me. From what I’ve seen, the front end of the boat took on the most water and, when it filled to a point, started to pull the ship down front first. I’m not an engineer here, but it seems to me that the weight of the front – with the buoyancy of the back (as I think it was designed to work) proved to be too much and rather than the ship going down as a whole front first, the front just broke off – but didn’t detach all the way. So, what happened was the front went down – and gravity being what it is – a lot of people were lost off deck then – just went into the water. All of the sudden, the ship cracked in half, and the aft, which had been perpendicular with the water, slams back into the water and floats, thus throwing another large number of people into the water. Given the size of the ship, I can only assume the impact from the water from that height killed those people instantly.
The rear of the ship floats for a while, but eventually gravity takes over and the thread still connecting the front of the ship to the back of it pulls both parts down, taking many more of the rest of the people still on the ship with it. In the film, Rose and Jack were some of these people left at this point. They end up in the freezing water and search for a boat or a piece of wreckage to float on while waiting for help to arrive. Rose and Jack find a board to float on, but only one of them can get on it to float, so, being the gentleman, Jack encourages Rose to float on it and tells her the best thing she can do for him is to live a long life and have lots of babies. They tell each other they love each other. Unfortunately, many of the people who survived the whole sinking ended up dying in the cold water waiting for help to arrive. Jack was one of these people – at first, Rose wants to join him, but, in thinking about his last words, lets him go and finds a whistle to be rescued. After her rescue, you see Rose standing on another ship, wearing Cal’s coat (who also survived) and fishing the diamond out of her pocket.
We are brought back to the present where Rose fills us in on the rest of her life: she never married Cal, but did marry another man that she had a full life with. She never forgot Jack, though, and still thinks of him today. She then throws the diamond into the ocean. The film ends with the aged Rose asleep (or possibly dead – therein lies the controversy – though, I’ve always been of the opinion that she died after telling the story – that she needed to tell the story before she could die) on the wreckage recovery ship.
Overall, I enjoyed this film. I can’t say that 3D and/or IMAX added much to it; for sure it is a neat effect, but I don’t really think in enhanced things much for me.
Next up: The French Connection (1971).