This is Titanic week, as all of you who don’t live in tunnels like prairie dogs must know. It has been a century since the sinking of the Great Unsinkable, with the deaths of 1500 souls including some of the great artistic, financial and industrial greats of the era. James Cameron’s 1997 film is also returning this week in 3-D, which means that the misconceptions, false accounts and outright misrepresentations the film drove into the public consciousness and popular culture will be strengthened once again. I think it would be ethical, on this centennial of the tragedy, for those in a position to do so to make a concerted effort to honor the victims and their families by honoring the truth. Thanks to Cameron, this is impossible.
I should state at the outset that I detest the movie, and its astounding arrogance. There have been few historical events with more fascinating and intrinsically dramatic facts than the ship’s sinking, and even fewer with such an abundance of remarkable individuals in the thick of them. There are so many documented episodes and events worthy of dramatic re-creation during the voyage and demise of the liner, including the thrilling and courageous rescue effort undertaken by the S.S. Carpathia, that any one film attempting to do justice to them all would be several days long. Nevertheless, this was not enough for director Cameron, who devoted the bulk of his film chronicling a fictional romance between non-existent passengers. Most absurd of all, in the chaos before the ship went down, which in real life contained astounding acts of heroism, desperation, cowardice and love, Cameron decided that things weren’t exciting enough and focused his camera on Billy Zane’s fictional and despicable First Class snob running through the flooding vessel, firing pistol shots at Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Titanic” joins “JFK” in my special Hell reserved for films that mix fact, supposition and fiction so irresponsibly that they actively confuse and misinform. Cameron is a well-publicized Titanic buff; he spared no expense making certain that every detail of the ship—its china pattern, its furnishings, its architecture—was accurate, and then recklessly altered events or chose controversial and dubious versions of them for his own purposes, and history be damned. On the way, he marred the reputations of participants who earned and deserved a better legacy. For example, Cameron shows First Officer William Murdoch taking a bribe to let Zane on a lifeboat, shooting a passenger, and committing suicide. Of the bribe, there is no evidence whatsoever. Regarding the passenger being shot, it is unclear whether this happened, and there is no credible evidence that Murdoch was the shooter if it did. As for his supposed suicide, the inquest had two witnesses on the matter, a passenger who says he saw it, and a Titanic officer, the heroic and credible Charles Lightholler, who emphatically swore he saw Murdoch at his post after the lifeboats had launched. This is a real human being and probable hero whose reputation is at stake, with the bulk of evidence supporting accounts that he performed his duties bravely and well. As an artist, Cameron can portray Murdoch as a German spy or a cross-dresser if he chooses to, but his slander here is doubly unethical: it is unfair to a dead man who cannot defend himself, and a misuse of the credibility James Cameron has with audiences due to his status as a Titanic expert.
Similarly, though less outrageously, Cameron chose to diminish the reputation of Margaret Brown, known to us today as Molly Brown, a middle-aged Denver millionairess who survived the disaster with brio. By many eye-witness accounts, she was one of the most heroic passengers, helping others to board the lifeboats, stilling the panic, and once onboard a lifeboat herself, picking up an oar and rowing. Others in her boat reported that she argued with the officer in charge to force him to return to the scene of the sinking and pick up survivors, and according to some sources, she was successful. Cameron, however, shows her making one ineffective objection and meekly submitting when rebuked by the officer. Why did Brown become a legend as a result of her conduct on board the ship and the lifeboat, if this was the extent of her boldness? Cameron had the historical memories of real people in his hands, and treated them as disposable playthings for his own amusement.
My particular annoyance, however, was with Cameron’s decision to depict the Titanic as snapping in two at a high angle. It was undoubtedly a spectacular effect, and I’m sure it will be boffo in 3-D, but even in 1997, it should have been clear that this didn’t happen. Thanks to Cameron, however, most of the American public thinks it did.
Hundreds of people witnessed the sinking of the Titanic, and many of them delivered extensive testimony about what occurred on that tragic night at the official inquest. Some were even on board the ship when it split in half; we know it did split, the question is how, where, and when. None of them reported seeing, in 3-D, a horrifying sight approximately as big and unforgettable as the explosion of the Hindenburg, though all reported that they heard a very loud noise as the ship went down. (Yes, that was the ship breaking apart.) But after the Titanic was discovered on the ocean floor in two pieces, some computer simulations concluded that the ship must have split as Cameron portrayed it. Anyone with respect for the sworn statements of the survivors in 1912 would have made the logical conclusion that this couldn’t be right, because nobody saw it. Instead, researchers tracked down some of the aged survivors of the disaster still living in 1991, who were grilled regarding the new version of events and conceded in their dotage that the huge ship might have broken apart at a high angle and above the surface. The youngest of these survivors was 84, and five-years old in 1912, while the oldest survivor, who was a teenager at the time of the sinking, was well into her 90s. This was still enough for Cameron to stage his spectacle, which, if it was an accurate portrayal, would mean that all the surviving passengers who testified in 1912 were blind, stupid, or lying.
We now know, due to better simulations and closer examination of the wreckage, that the passengers were right, and the technicians who Cameron chose to believe instead were missing a few crucial pieces of evidence. In 2006, a new theory emerged that reconciled the eyewitness accounts with the wreckage, metallurgy and physics. Titanic broke apart, all right, but at a low angle, with the split coming just below the surface. A History Channel documentary does a good job explaining the science involved; you can probably catch it this week.
I don’t blame Cameron for not basing his portrayal on evidence that only was clarified years after his film. I fault him for discounting the testimony of survivors, and misinforming the public by plastering a false version on a giant screen for millions to see, knowing that they would trust that a man who would insist that the doomed ship’s china pattern was accurate surely wouldn’t fudge the most eye-popping incident in the film. Yet that’s what James Cameron did.
Now the film is back, bigger than ever, and false representations of Officer Murdock, “Unsinkable” Molly Brown, the sinking itself, and other aspects of the iconic event will be imbedded even deeper into our historical understanding. It didn’t have to be that way, and it is wrong that it is. History, the public, and the 1500 who died that night in 1912 deserve better.