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Editorial

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 voyage.

 

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.