So, we come to it at last. If you’re reading this blog, it’s far more likely than not that you’ve seen James Cameron’s Titanic. Predicted by many to bomb when its budget reached $200 million, it instead became the first movie to make over a billion dollars at the box office (indeed, it made over two billion when the 2012 re-release was factored in), and was the highest grossing film of all time until Cameron’s next film, Avatar, was released in 2009.
I anticipated that it would be difficult to write a proper review of Titanic – in case you hadn’t already realised, I absolutely adore this movie. It’s the whole reason I got interested in the ship in the first place. But I think going into depth about my personal feelings is best saved for another time – so for now, I’ll just talk about how and why it works as a movie.
Since practically everybody watching the film already knows what happens to the ship, beginning with an exploration of the wreck (genuine footage, by the way) works in the film’s favour. The framing device of elderly Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) explaining what happened to her – and her diamond necklace – adds extra interest and direction to a historical event with a foregone conclusion. The film also avoids having to explain too much about the sinking while it’s actually happening, with a quick present-day scene involving a computer simulation with accompanying narration.
Similar to the 1953 film, the 1997 film has the Titanic serving as a backdrop for a single story involving fictional characters – but as this one gives more focus to historical figures, we get the best of both worlds. Meanwhile, the influence of other Titanic films is often clear. Quite a few moments are very similar to A Night to Remember, such as band leader Wallace Hartley initially playing ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ alone before the other musicians come back to join him. Even Molly Brown’s line “Why do they insist on announcing dinner like a damn cavalry charge?” is a variation on a line from the 1953 film.
Admittedly, the Romeo & Juliet-style love story between younger Rose (Kate Winslet) and third-class heartthrob Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn’t the most complex or original in the world. Nor is the contrast between the snobbery of first class and the free-spiritedness of third class very subtle, what with such moments as Rose’s rich fiancée Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), upon learning that half of the people onboard will die, replying, “Not the better half.” And there’s certainly a good helping of cheesiness in the script. But I still think it works. There are scenes of genuinely fine acting and dialogue – Jack and Rose’s first proper meeting, when he talks her out of suicide, comes to mind – and Jack is given a life, friends and thoughts of his own (see him first entering the Grand Staircase and trying to match the gestures of the people around him) rather than only existing to benefit Rose.
For all the relative light-heartedness earlier on, the film definitely knows when to start being serious. The collision with the iceberg is considerably more dramatic than in previous films, with more shouting and heart-pounding music involved. (Given how close the iceberg is when we first see it, the Titanic seems to come up to it very slowly.) The subsequent sinking sequence makes the earlier, less dramatic period in the process go by quickly, with more focus on drawing out the last moments, when the last lifeboats are lowered and the flooding accelerates. As the Titanic’s stern rises higher into the air – a spectacular and awful sight – interiors are destroyed, most of the side characters we’ve met are killed, and the screams of the doomed echo clear across the water. Once the ship has disappeared, we see hundreds of people thrashing helplessly on the surface of the dark ocean, followed soon after by a lone lifeboat moving among their frozen, silent bodies.
One of the biggest historical inaccuracies in the film is the amount of freedom that the main characters have onboard in the name of artistic licence. For one thing, passengers weren’t actually allowed to go on the forecastle deck so they could pose on the bow. Also, Jack’s movements create the impression that it was far simpler to move between first and third-class areas than it really was. The restriction of the third-class passengers during the sinking is more extreme than in reality; and there was some outcry regarding the portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch, specifically his apparent acceptance of a bribe from Cal, and later shooting two people and then himself. Personally, I would argue that Murdoch does not explicitly accept the bribe: when Cal forces the money into his pocket, he moves away without saying anything. Whether Murdoch or any other officers shot themselves or anyone else – as a few survivors reported – is one of many controversial issues surrounding the disaster, which can’t be proven for certain either way, as no officers’ bodies were recovered.
Aside from inaccuracies like that, there’s a great level of detail, even with things that the audience won’t be focussing on. James Cameron is a director who pays a lot of attention to his backgrounds: the extras in each scene are always doing relevant things, whether it’s displaying proper etiquette at dinner, or running around in uncertainty during the sinking. Often recognisable characters are included in the background: for example, the Astors are seen entering an elevator as Molly Brown boards the Titanic at Cherbourg; and the lookout who spotted the iceberg – Fred Fleet – is present in Molly’s lifeboat, which is true to real life. Things like this help to emphasise the human element, rather like how visiting Titanic Belfast last year made me feel.
More than any other film, this one really puts you on the Titanic. Through the use of miniatures, digital effects, and a life-size (though incomplete) recreation of the ship that could actually be sunk, Cameron brings the original ship to life on a level beyond any previous film. We get lots of beautiful sweeping shots of the whole vessel, and detailed looks at the interiors, from the Grand Staircase to the engine room. In this film, the Titanic is practically a character in itself: we watch it in life, and then we have to watch it die.
As well as capturing the actual disaster with an impressive level of life and detail, James Cameron’s Titanic is one of those films that manages to be a good all-rounder: it delivers just about everything, from action to romance, to entertain a general audience. It’s well-paced, and is simple to follow despite having so much content. I have personally always loved it, despite being cautious to admit it for a time in the wake of the backlash it received.
Given that general opinions on this film have tended to be varied in the years since it came out, I’d be interested to hear your own thoughts in the comments – or if, by some tiny chance, you’ve never actually seen it!