The long take: Titanic efforts

The tragic sinking of an unsinkable ship still has the power to shock more than a century later.

Titanic (1997)

The disaster movie is a curious beast, trading on spectacle, thrills and the glamour of an A-list ensemble cast, while sometimes exploiting a real-life tragedy. One hundred and ten years ago, the first Titanic film was released, just a month after the supposedly unsinkable ship sank in the freezing Atlantic and more than 1,500 souls perished.

The casting and the catastrophe were linked. Dorothy Gibson, star of the now-lost film Saved from the Titanic (1912), had actually been a passenger on the liner and was lucky enough to escape on the first lifeboat. The film made a fair stab at authenticity, splicing newsreel images of the ship with the re-enacted drama; Gibson even appeared in the same dress that she wore as the vessel went down. Although many people felt it was too soon to dramatise the disaster, the film was well received. Sadly, the shoot proved too much for Gibson; it’s said that she was visibly traumatised during it. After its release she suffered a nervous breakdown and never appeared in a film again.

Celluloid history did not heed the warning. There have been multiple Titanic dramas in the century or so since. Joseph Goebbels exploited the disaster for propaganda in 1943, with a film titled for the ship, which blamed the tragedy on Anglo-American capitalism. He later decided the film had the opposite effect to that desired and pulled it from distribution, but it set a precedent for adorning a tragic narrative with fictional subplots.

Dorothy Gibson in Saved from the Titanic (1912)

A handful of mid-century favourites endure: 1953’s Titanic, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as an upper-class couple in love aboard the doomed liner, the class-stratified British ensemble drama A Night to Remember (1958) and the MGM musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), which starred Debbie Reynolds as the famously indefatigable passenger. In these cases, the drama often arises from an emphasis on the ship’s class hierarchies, and the suspense from supposedly harmless icebergs glimpsed early in the voyage. Solace arrives with romance, music and the guarantee that plenty of the named cast will survive to see dry land again.

One Titanic film looms largest on the horizon. Released 25 years ago, James Cameron’s blockbuster may have been heavily influenced by (and uncannily like) A Night to Remember but its scale seemed bound to scupper everything that came before it. Titanic (1997), his three-hour re-enactment of the deadliest peacetime sea disaster, was then the most expensive movie ever made. The production was notoriously troubled – hard to forget the lurid reports of the on-set catering being spiked with PCP. However, Cameron’s epic more than repaid its investment, as the first film to take more than $1 billion at the box office.

Thanks to Titanic, it was a good time to be a sentimental teenage girl. While the film’s vast budget was mostly deployed in the extended sinking sequence, with a replica ship tilting 90 degrees in 17 million gallons of cold water, the film’s key appeal was the doomed romance between Kate Winslet’s teenager with a trunkful of Picassos and Leonardo DiCaprio’s street urchin, smouldering at her from steerage. That weighty box-office revenue was reportedly boosted by repeat business from young women queuing up to cry over the teeth-chattering denouement all over again.

But it was a terrible time to be a cynical teenage girl. My interest in Titanic extended as far as the special effects: the sight of an ocean liner dropping under the waves and the shock of freezing water rushing into the upper-class cabins. The contrived love affair, with its excruciating dialogue, was too artificial to win me over.

When I saw the film again recently, something had changed. Since 1997, I have learned that one of my ancestors was a joiner on RMS Titanic. Being a young man, and crew rather than passenger, he went down with the ship. His story is poignant, though Hollywood screenwriters would leap on the titbit that he was friendly with a woman in first class who managed to find a lifeboat. He is also a named character in the Cameron Titanic, likely because he might (and do take this with a splash of salty ocean water) have been the man to inform Captain Smith that the water had irrevocably breached the ship. When I changed channels one night, there he was, delivering the grim news. The same man is addressed only as ‘chippy’ or ‘carpenter’ in the 1958 film.

It takes only the finest connecting thread to make the drama of disaster more immediate. Back in the 90s, newspaper reporters were as likely to catch middle-aged men as their daughters weeping during screenings of Titanic. The film’s impact has always been broader than the demographic targeted by the young lovers balanced on the ship’s prow. This time I was horrified rather than awed by the sinking of the ship; newly enraged by the scant supply of lifeboats; and overwhelmed by the number of stories that don’t ever make their way to the centre of a movie. Perhaps Dorothy Gibson felt a similar way.

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