The first film to recreate the Titanic disaster reached the screen just four weeks after the ship sank during the night of 14–15 April 1912. Saved From the Titanic (1912) starred Dorothy Gibson, an actress who had been on the Titanic and survived to tell the story.
It would be told in many more films, including American, British and German productions, and in many different styles, ranging from lavish melodramas to restrained docudramas. In all of its guises, the story of this fateful journey, filled with hubris, tragedy, chivalry and selfishness, has captivated audiences for nearly 100 years.
Dir: Jean Negulesco, USA, 1953. With Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner
For decades, filmmakers borrowed events and details from the tragedy without acknowledging it specifically. Both the early British talkie Atlantic (1929) and Hollywood’s History is Made at Night (1937) climax with a luxury liner hitting an iceberg, passengers being put into lifeboats, and the ship’s band playing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’, but the ships are given fictional names.
In 1939, Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film was set to be the Titanic story, but on the eve of the Second World War British officials objected to a film portraying a notorious maritime disaster, and Hitchcock made Rebecca (1940) instead. Hence, Twentieth Century-Fox’s Titanic had some novelty value in 1953.
The film’s documentary-style opening seems to promise adherence to real events: the creation of an iceberg is seen as it breaks off the ice shelf. From that point onward, however, the film focuses almost entirely on the fictional Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck), an American fleeing from Europe and her husband’s high-society lifestyle so that she can raise her children in the wholesome environment of the midwest.
RMS Titanic is her means of escape. Her husband, Richard (Clifton Webb), unexpectedly joins her on board and the revelations and confrontations flow, interrupted only by the disaster. At that point, Richard redeems himself, and demonstrates that refinement is not necessarily a mark of bad character. Nevertheless, he has no place on a journey portrayed as one away from Old World elitism and toward New World democracy. Julia and her daughter survive on the lifeboats, while Richard and her son go down with the ship.
But is it accurate?
The depiction of the transatlantic journey as one of liberation clearly appealed to James Cameron, who borrowed the theme for his own melodramatic story. But this Titanic has less interest in real people and actual events than the subsequent films.
Curiously, well-known passengers are portrayed, but the attitude taken towards them is inconsistent. In some cases recognisable characters are given fictional names, while in others real names are used. More curiously, the iceberg is correctly spotted on the starboard side of the ship but cuts a gash along the port side.
2. A Night to Remember
Dir: Roy Baker, UK, 1958. With Kenneth More, Honor Blackman, Michael Goodliffe
Based on Walter Lord’s meticulously researched book, this British version of the story is strikingly different from its Hollywood counterparts. Made in the restrained documentary style that had developed during the Second World War, the film has little interest in glamour, romantic fulfilment or happy endings. Its most notable submission to box-office demands is the central role played by Kenneth More, a major star of 1950s British cinema.
More plays the ship’s second officer, Charles Lightoller, as the sort of morally incorruptible figure often found in the period’s war films. His casual level-headedness represented a more modern form of the stiff upper-lip, and it is seen to be effective: Lightoller saves lives among passengers and crew.
His centrality hardly limits the film’s scope: there are dozens of characters, giving the impression that everyone’s part in the tragedy is acknowledged and affirmed. Hundreds of extras and an impressive replica of the ship convey the enormity of the events.
Mounted on a scale rare in British films, the film cost over £500,000 to make. Its most controversial sequences portray steerage passengers forcibly locked behind gates and prevented from reaching the lifeboats by the crew. Reliable accounts cast doubt on these confrontations, but the scenes fit with the filmmakers’ vision of Edwardian Britain as an era in which the class system was entrenched and unquestioned.
The film dramatises the night’s tragic events without ever becoming overwrought. We see the tremendous faith in the ‘unsinkable’ ship, the unheeded ice warnings, ice falling on deck at the moment of impact, ‘women and children first’ in the lifeboats, the Californian ignoring the distress signals, the band playing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’, the loss of life as Titanic goes under, and the arguments over whether the lifeboats should go back for survivors. It is a judicious account. Whether it has the dramatic impact of Cameron’s film is a matter of taste.
But is it accurate?
There are some tiny inaccuracies and slightly misleading moments to be found here. The ship was not christened with champagne, as the opening scene suggests. The wrong painting is hanging in the dining room. The documentary sequences purporting to show the real Titanic actually show other ships. Nevertheless, A Night to Remember is that rarity among historical films: one that is both well-researched and faithful to its research.
Dir: James Cameron, USA, 1997. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
James Cameron was reportedly inspired to make Titanic when he saw A Night to Remember, and this inspiration can be detected at times: some shots of the ship and particularly its sinking are clearly inspired by the British film.
A quasi-documentary approach is also apparent in the early scenes, showing submarine footage of the ship’s wreckage on the ocean floor. But this initial interest in the real Titanic, or at least its wreckage, quickly leads into the fictional story of Rose (Kate Winslet), an upper-class woman travelling on the Titanic with her mother (Frances Fisher) and millionaire fiancé (Billy Zane), who wish to confine her to a miserably privileged life of marriage and respectability.
Enter the penniless, orphaned artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a steerage class traveller intent on liberating the rebel in Rose. The melodrama that ensues borders at times on the ridiculous, not least when the villainous fiancé chases the couple through the sinking ship, firing wildly at them with a pistol. One can only wonder why, with real characters and high drama in abundance, Cameron thought these clichés were preferable.
However, the value of a new generation of special effects is undeniable, and in every frame the production values afforded by a staggering $200 million budget are apparent; not least the vast reproduction of the ship itself. The iconic image of the film – of Jack and Rose standing at the bow, arms outstretched as though they are flying forward – is central to its theme of emancipation through romantic fulfilment, but audiences were just as likely to be thrilled by the spectacle of the ship’s sinking, captured in some sequences with nail-biting intensity.
This Titanic made stars of its central couple, won 11 Oscars, and took $1.8 billion at box-offices throughout the world, making it the highest earning film ever.
But is it accurate?
With the exception of the outspoken Molly Brown, whose character fits perfectly with the film’s egalitarian leanings, the historical figures are mostly confined to the background. Lightoller may have been the hero of A Night to Remember, but he is a minor figure here.
The film’s most significant error was to portray the Scottish first officer, William Murdoch, as a hysterical figure who shoots at passengers before killing himself. Cameron apologised to Murdoch’s surviving relatives for this inaccuracy, but the scene was not removed from the film.
Other films about the Titanic:
(dir: Herbert Selpin, Germany, 1943)
A pet project of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, this version blames greedy British aristocrats for the disaster.
- The Unsinkable Molly Brown
(dir: Charles Walters, US, 1964)
A musical about the rags-to-riches life of the legendary American survivor.
(dir: Billy Hale, UK/US, 1979)
The familiar story but with less than spectacular sets and special effects.
(dir: Jerry Jameson, US/UK. 1980)
A notoriously expensive box-office flop, this is a Cold War thriller about the race to retrieve rare minerals from the ship’s wreckage.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the co-editor of The New Film History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)