100 Film Favorites – #57: Titanic
(James Cameron, 1997)
The sad tale of the Titanic’s maiden voyage proved forever that when radio is in its infancy, and you’re in ice-cold water 12,000 feet deep, rushing headlong into an uncharted field of icebergs in the middle of the night probably isn’t a good idea. Unless you’ve got some kind of early-1910s Han Solo at the helm, that sort of thing just isn’t going to end well.
The movie opens in “the present” of 1997, with a high-tech treasure hunter and his crew scouring the wreck of the Titanic with a submersible in hopes of recovering the Heart of the Ocean, a large blue diamond (similar to the real Hope Diamond), which was believed to have been carried aboard the ship by Caledon Hockley, heir to a steel fortune. The crew discover a sketch in Hockley’s cabin of a nude woman wearing the diamond, and a centenarian named Rose Calvert comes aboard the treasure-hunters’ ship, claiming to be the woman in the drawing.
The story proper begins with Rose recounting her journey as a passenger on the maiden voyage of Titanic in April, 1912. Young Rose is a headstrong and progressive 17-year old who feels captive to her upper-class status (Rose’s mother pressures her into marrying the boorish, but wealthy Hockley to secure their continued financial security). Shortly after the ship sets out to sea, Rose attempts suicide by leaping from the bow of the ship, but is “talked down” by Jack Dawson, a young, vagrant artist traveling in steerage, who won his ticket in a hand of poker.
Over the next three and a half days, Jack and Rose embark on a whirlwind romance. Jack employs the trusty Aladdin gambit, showing Rose a whole new world beyond the strictures of upper-class decorum: They attend a rollicking party below-deck with the steerage passengers. Later, Jack creates the nude portrait of Rose found by the treasure hunters 85 years in the future. Finally, Jack and Rose get down to some serious Edwardian-era canoodling in the back seat of a fancy automobile in the ship’s cargo hold.
Then the ship hits an iceberg and sinks. Who’da thunk?
Though offered a space on a lifeboat, Rose opts to stay with Jack, and the two cling to the ship until its last moments, when the tail end of the stern finally slips beneath the surface. They find a door floating in the ocean nearby, and Jack helps Rose climb onto it. Why don’t they take turns lying on the door? Why don’t they find some way to lie on top of one another (it seemed to work okay in that back seat)? Well, the fact remains that they don’t do either of those things. Jack remains paddling in the water and succumbs to hypothermia after a few minutes. Waiting atop the door, Rose is able to be rescued by Life Boat 14, the only one to return to the site of the sinking to collect more survivors.
Returning to the present, we learn that Rose, presumed dead by her family, spent the rest of her life under the assumed name of Rose Dawson. Over the course of her next 85 years, she followed Jack’s example and did lots of progressive and adventurous things, including traveling the world and learning to fly a plane. The film ends with the elderly Rose sneaking to the bow of the treasure-hunters’ ship on the last night of their expedition. It is revealed that she has had the Heart of the Ocean in her possession the entire time, and she drops it over the side to join the rest of the Titanic. Though, if she really didn’t want it, she probably should have just given it to the treasure hunter and his crew. I mean, he’s probably out hundreds of thousands of dollars looking for it as it is…and now that the diamond actually IS at the Titanic wreck, another search team is just going to find it in a few months or years anyway. Oh well. Rose drifts off to sleep in her quarters, and, either in death or dreams, is reunited with Jack and the other passengers upon the Grand Staircase of the Titanic.
Let’s get this out of the way up front, as it’s probably the biggest and most common criticism lobbed at this film: James Cameron may not be the best screenwriter in the world. The dialogue in Titanic is often clunky, and “conversations” between Jack and Rose consist largely of each saying the other’s name repeatedly, with unnatural frequency.
However, this does not change the fact that James Cameron is a badass in plenty of other ways. Cameron has long had an interest in science, and his 1989 film “The Abyss” inspired a passion specifically for deep-sea exploration. Over the following decades, Cameron has become an expert in the field. The scenes of the sunken Titanic at the beginning of the movie were shot at the actual wreck, some of the earliest film footage to be shot there. Remember, this is more than two miles beneath the surface of the ocean, so you can’t just go there on a lark, even if you are a rich and influential Hollywood director.
In March 2012, James Cameron went one better, and became the first, and so far only, person IN HISTORY to descend to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest crevasse in the Mariana Trench, touching down at a depth of nearly seven miles, BY HIMSELF. His was only the second manned expedition ever to reach that depth, with the first trip accomplished by a pair of French researchers in 1960.
Cameron is clearly dedicated to sea exploration, and it was this passion which largely motivated the making of Titanic. More than any aspect of the story (which is still moving, as is any incident in which more than 1500 people from all walks of life suddenly perish), it is this dedication to faithfully reproducing the Titanic and its sinking which earns this film a space on the Countdown. Production of the film was a truly Herculean feat, and it proved to be the most expensive film-making enterprise to date. The crew constructed a nearly full-scale model of the ship along a massive area of beachfront, for scenes of the boarding and departure of Titanic. To accomplish the sinking, easily the most remarkable sequence in the film, other massive sets were created. Rooms and hallways were built to tilt and submerge in over 5 million gallons of water, which was actually kept relatively cold (to avoid the telltale appearance of steam rising from warm water). Cast members developed colds and bladder infections from slogging through the tepid water for extended periods of time, and Kate Winslet swore not to work with Cameron on any future projects unless she is paid “a lot of money.” A massive model of the back-end of the ship was also built to tilt 90 degrees into the air, to film the sinking of the stern.
The film does an impressive job of combining this extravagant set-design with traditional effects as well as the still-new CGI utilized to show the mighty ship traveling at full steam. 16 years out, the film still looks good (though if you really look closely at the little digital people walking around on the deck in some long shots, there’s some definite uncanny valley going on).
Props also to James Horner’s score. Even if Celine Dion’s lyrics to “My Heart Will Go On” may seem a bit less than inspired, the instrumental version featuring a ghostly, ethereal tin whistle is one of the most iconic melodies in film.
Titanic won 11 Oscars at the 1997 Academy Awards, a record only matched by Ben-Hur in 1962 and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. Its popularity and its longer-than-average theatrical run (extended to include Valentine’s Day) led it to become the first film to gross over a billion dollars at the box office, and the second to top two billion upon its 3D re-release.
Yes, the 1997 “Titanic” is a romance with cliched story elements and occasionally awkward dialogue. But it’s also a lavishly produced historical epic, and a detailed attempt to recreate and memorialize the events of that tragic night a century ago. True, there are plenty of other cinematic adaptations of the Titanic story. And while some may fare better with critics, at least this one doesn’t have a rapping dog.
Tidbits: Eric Braeden, best known as Victor on the long-running soap opera The Young and the Restless, plays John Jacob Astor IV, Titanic’s richest passenger. The resemblance is pretty spot-on.
-The massive Grand Staircase set, built to exactly replicate the original on the Titanic, was actually ripped from its foundation by the force of the water flooded in from above at the climax of the film. Luckily, no cast or crew were injured.
In closing, here’s what the sinking of the Titanic might look like if it happened backwards…you know, in case you ever wondered: