On September 1, 1985, I was home sick with the chicken pox. Upset that it caused me to miss my very first field trip, I needed a distraction. So I did what any typical five-year old would do: I watched television.
Typically, I would not recall a specific day of childhood TV watching, but this day was different. Not long into my mid-morning cartoons a special report aired, announcing that the wreckage of the RMS Titanic had been found.
Recognizing that name from a board game my grandmother had, the report caught my interest and thus my obsession was born. The Titanic became a life-long love of mine. I read every book I could find about its sinking and watched every movie that had been made. In 1996, I wrote a research paper on it.
Then James Cameron made his movie.
You’d better believe I was one of the first people in line to see it. I could not wait to see the stories I had read about, projected onto the big screen. The trailer already had me in tears, by bringing to life that “ship of dreams” in a way no other film had done before. Add Leo and Kate to the mix and I was sold.
I can’t put my finger on when I started thinking maybe this film wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. I felt for Rose’s character, and I enjoyed Leo’s scrappy kid from Wisconsin, but something felt off. Maybe it was Kate’s American accent. Maybe it was how juvenile Leo looked next to a much more mature Billy Zane. I’m not sure, but it distracted me enough to take me out of the experience.
Then there was the historical inaccuracy. One thing that repeatedly drove me crazy was how Leo just popped into First Class anytime he damn well pleased. Anyone who knows anything about the Titanic knows the classes were divided by locked gates on that ship. It’s the whole reason so many of the steerage passengers were among the casualties. So every time he just hopped on up there, I couldn’t help but inwardly ask, “How?”
I was also saddened that the fictional characters didn’t interact much with the actual historical personages onboard. The stories of the actual victims of the Titanic are, in and of themselves, tragic and could have made the movie that much more real and dramatic had they been given a chance to shine.
The ending had me literally cursing at the screen. Rose is safely tucked away on a lifeboat, she knows there aren’t enough boats to go around, and yet, she jumps back onto the Titanic. I know, I know — it’s supposed to be romantic, but I thought she was just dumb. Jack was from Wisconsin, after all. He knows all about the cold water and how to survive. He told her all about it. Yet somehow she thinks her presence beside him will make all the difference in his survival.
It does Rose, but not in the way you think.
An Under-Appreciated Alternative
As I said before, I watched every movie that had been made about the Titanic. About a year before the James Cameron film was released, CBS aired a Titanic movie of tits own, one that I’m sure was designed to whet our appetites for the bigger budget production.
That movie, however, was more enjoyable to me, than the multi-million dollar blockbuster. Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Peter Gallagher, George C. Scott, Tim Curry and Eva Marie Saint, it handled the social class distinction far better than James Cameron’s film. There was an upper class romance and a lower class romance. The fictional character’s interactions with the actual historical people onboard the ship, too, were handled in a much more believable and intrinsic way.
We learn, for instance, about the doomed Allison family and their maid who made it off of the ship with their infant son. We learn more about John Jacob Astor and his new wife, Madeleine. The social class distinction that was so ironclad on the Titanic disappears aboard the Carpathia, in a particularly moving scene with first class passengers helping third class ones.
That made for TV movie may not have all the fancy bells and whistles of a blockbuster production, but the storytelling that was missing in James Cameron’s movie was far more apparent. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ heartbreaking performance still reduces me to tears, while I have to hold back snickers of laughter as Rose pries Jacks’s frozen hands from off her makeshift raft.
I know. What’s wrong with me? Everyone loves this movie.
Accentuate The Positive
The cinematography of Titanic is still some of the best around. That shot of the wreck that spans the years and takes us back to that fateful day in April 1912? Breathtaking. The depiction of the sinking of the ship, also cannot be matched with any other film featuring the doomed vessel. The way the ship breaks apart, the funnels as they tumble into the icy cold Atlantic? Unparalleled in dramatic effect and beauty. The special attention paid to Titanic’s famous propellers? A history lover’s dream.
The film itself has also raised an interest in the ship and conservation efforts. That’s always a good thing. I can hardly visit any large city or tourist destination without seeing a Titanic museum or a traveling exhibition. To see people getting excited over history is always something that makes my heart smile, so I tip my hat to James Cameron for that.
Not only has it spurred a rise in overall awareness, documentary films, headed by Cameron himself, have furthered the preservation efforts of this tragic, yet crumbling piece of human history.
Titanic gave us a memorable score with a song that will forever reduce us to tears. (Yes, the song makes me cry, even if the movie didn’t.) It launched Celine Dion from star to mega-star and no matter what else she does in life, she will always be remembered for the haunting beauty of My Heart Will Go On.
And where would we be without people racing to the front of ships far and wide claiming that they are “King of the World?” That is an iconic moment in pop culture history that has spanned the now 22 years since the film was released.
I’ll Never Let Go
I may not have enjoyed Titanic, but it’s impossible to deny the hold it has on the hearts of millions. The romance, the history, the tragedy of that doomed vessel has superseded generational differences and has sparked an interest in the collective imagination of people world wide.
Whether you loved or hated the movie is a moot point. In the end, our hearts will go on remembering Titanic because of this film.