The biggest and most luxurious ship in the world, advertised as being practically unsinkable, runs into an iceberg and sinks on her maiden voyage. Over 1500 people are lost, from ordinary folk to famous, wealthy figures. The disaster forces people to realise just how outdated and inadequate maritime safety practices have become – from it being acceptable to continue at full speed with ice ahead, to only carrying enough lifeboats for a fraction of the ship’s full capacity – and leads to major changes in both regulations and attitudes.
The loss of the RMS Titanic is a fascinating story, and it’s no surprise that it has endured in public memory for so long, or that there have been so many retellings in print, film and television. It’s not just that the subject matter itself is compelling; there’s room for many different approaches to be taken, from the range of potential themes, to the different classes and environments in which historical or fictional characters can be placed.
In fact, the first ever film about the Titanic (aside from newsreels) was released literally a month after the disaster, in May 1912. Entitled Saved from the Titanic, it had the additional novelty of starring an actual Titanic survivor. Dorothy Gibson was a 22-year-old actress who was travelling on the Titanic with her mother; they both escaped in the first lifeboat to be lowered. Soon after her safe arrival in New York, the Éclair Film Company persuaded Gibson to participate in the project: the result was a 10-minute film in which Gibson played a survivor sharing her experiences with her family, and even wore the same clothes she had been wearing in the lifeboat. Having to re-live the traumatic disaster didn’t do Gibson any good: she reportedly suffered a breakdown, and retired from acting soon afterwards. Saved from the Titanic itself is considered a lost film; no copy is believed to survive.
As for the films based around the Titanic – in addition to a few television projects – that can be viewed today, I’m going to watch and review as many as I can this month. So let’s start with the oldest surviving film.
In Nacht und Eis (In Night and Ice – 1912)
Like Saved from the Titanic, this 35-minute silent film came out in the same year as the disaster itself. Produced in Germany, it was only rediscovered in 1998.
When viewed from modern eyes, this film’s entertainment value is somewhat limited. After a long scene of people boarding the ship, we then simply see the passengers and crew going about their business, playing games on deck and dressing for dinner. Then, when ice is sighted, the captain and his officer indulge in some overacting: the captain gesticulating frantically and staring with wild eyes, the officer clutching the sides of his head in horror.
We are then treated to some 1912 special effects, as a little model of the Titanic bumps against a chunk of ice – and on the port side, rather than the starboard as the real Titanic did. Another model, with smoke coming from its funnels and tiny little lifeboats floating around it, is used for sinking shots. The interior shots during the sinking are more effective, as rooms lurch back and forth, and the wireless officer continues to call for help as his room fills with water and panicked people rush by.
In Nacht und Eis is ultimately worth taking a look at, for its historical significance at least – it certainly doesn’t take up much time.