My Conflicted Relationship with the 1997 Movie, “Titanic”
Like most fans of the great liners, I am always pleased when new fans join our midst.
Ocean liner history can be fascinating, inspiring, and rewarding. Yet, as with all
areas of study, it is imperative to separate fact from fantasy.
The 1997 movie “Titanic” was, undoubtedly, a marvel. Grossing nearly $2 billion and
earning nearly one dozen Academy Awards, it was met with high praise by the general
public and critics alike. The cinematography was superb, and the storyline was engrossing—even
suspenseful at times. It also created new interest in the story of Titanic, the ship.
The promoters of the film emphasized its meticulous attention to detail, such as
period clothing, china patterns, and sets. Yet, this attention to detail, and the
hyping thereof, also led to the conclusion that much of the story was real.
Creative license is nothing new. Nor is it unique to “Titanic”— historical inaccuracies
are abundant in television (“Little House on the Prairie”) and in other films (such
as 2001’s “Pearl Harbor”). At best, it’s a form of entertainment. At worst, it’s
a material modification of a critical piece of history. “Titanic” falls somewhere
in the middle, albeit significantly closer to the former. And, this is the source
of my conflict.
Now, I am not referring to the minutiae that only liner fans would recognize, such
as structural details, décor, and ship layout. The aspects of this movie that bother
me most are the portrayals of several real-life passengers and the depiction of life
on a luxury liner in 1912. We’ll start with the latter. It would have been highly
improbable for a young society girl and a penniless artist to meet, never mind develop
a shipboard romance. Scenes of metal gates preventing the Third Class passengers
from reaching the lifeboats were overly exaggerated. In fact, there were more female
survivors from Third Class than there were male survivors from First Class. (Speaking
of which—Second Class is barely given a mention in the film.) Yet, most disturbing
is the portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch, who was made out to be an unscrupulous
sort who cracked under pressure, contradicting many survivor accounts.
And, then there is Jack Dawson. Visitors to Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, where
121 of Titanic’s passengers are buried, can easily spot the grave marker of a J.
Dawson, as it is typically adorned with flowers, photographs, letters, and news clippings.
Problem is, this is not the final resting place of Jack Dawson, starving artist who
won a third class ticket on Titanic in a card game moments before the ship’s departure.
Joseph Dawson was a crew member—a 23-year old coal trimmer from Dublin, who presumably
perished in the line of duty. Jack Dawson was a fictional character intent on saving
one life—that of his beloved. Big difference.
Therefore, it is important to make the following distinction: “Titanic” is the fictional
story of a young couple’s doomed romance, not the story of a young ship’s doomed
So, enjoy the movie “Titanic” for what it is—a romantic story that developed in the
minds of screenwriters. Leave the real story of RMS Titanic to the maritime historians
and engineers. And, give the real story a look sometime. It is far more intriguing.