In my work as a architecture, design and film writer, I am sometimes asked about Titanic, the ship. And when laypersons talk about the ship, that talk will, sooner or later, veer to James Cameron's blockbuster film. Questions of accuracy always arise, of course, as well they should.
It is indisputably true that Cameron played fast and loose with a great many facts and constructs surrounding the sinking of Titanic. Jack and Rose would have had no way to pursue their ill-fated romance aboard the ship, United States immigration regulations strictly segregated Third Class passengers from other travelers.
The suite (B-52-54-56) supposedly occupied by Caledon Hockley was, in fact, occupied by J. Bruce Ismay, and Cameron compounds the damage by making Ismay a character in the film, leaving the knowledgeable viewer to wonder what his accommodations were supposed to be. Not even the appearance of the suite is correct; Cameron enlarges it drastically and gives it a sitting room based on the one in parlor suite C-55-57, the suite occupied by Ida and Isador Straus.
As the film progresses, there are many more errors, which have kept many a Titanic buff occupied for the past fifteen years, happily demonstrating that Cameron got this, that, or the other completely, flatly, undeniably wrong. Cameron himself has made some reference to the situation, saying that data gathered on his latest dive to the wreck told him a great deal about where his own film “is accurate, and where it is not.”
Even the most expensive and elaborate motion picture begins with a simple, single sheet of blank paper – upon which one may begin to write anything one pleases. So why did Cameron choose to construct a story that anyone who had read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember – let alone any of the plethora of other works on the subject – would know contained major inaccuracies?
Part of the answer lies in the nature of the movie business. It is easy, given the razzle-dazzle that surrounds Hollywood picture-making, to forget what movies are about. They are not about stars, they are not about glamour, they are not about the painstaking craftsmanship that goes into their making. They are about putting the derrieres of cinema patrons into seats, at so much a pop. And whatever is considered capable of enticing the most derrieres into the greatest number of seats is what goes on the screen.
This means that movies based on historic fact often contain major distortions. One of the driving forces in commercial cinema is love stories, and whatever the history surrounding a film script might be, its love story will always take precedence, because it is the most salable aspect of a commercial movie. When Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind, she wove her tale around the vast social, economic and political changes that came to the American Deep South during and after America's Civil War. Once movie-makers got their hands on Mitchell's work, it became almost entirely about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler.
I therefore do not think Cameron is to be faulted for making a love story the centerpiece of his movie. His film cost $200 million, and once the costs of distribution, film prints and advertising were factored in, the total would have been uncomfortably close to half a billion – very serious money even by Hollywood standards. Getting two romantic figures together was essential to commercial success, though there seems to be no terribly pressing reason two First Class passengers could not have had a doomed romance. After all, Scarlett and Rhett were of the same background!
It is only when Cameron's film is looked at for what it is – rather than what it is not – that a true appreciation for the movie emerges. Watching Titanic today, it is clear that Cameron had and has a great interest in, and affection for, the ship; his devotion to re-creating her as nearly as could be (given the limitations of the research that existed in the early 1990s, when he began pre-production, and the mechanics of film-making) is evident in every frame.
The most astonishing aspect of the film is the ease and fluidity with which it shows us the ship. Instead of wobbly models and static paintings, we get Titanic as ever was – gliding gracefully out from Queenstown, “stretching her legs,” the very symbol of Edwardian mastery of the physical universe. Her size, her sleekness, her newness and her beauty are not merely hinted at in a series of sets, model shots and paintings – we get to see her plain at last.
And while it is quite possible to quibble over details of flooring, decking, internal layout, furnishings and fittings, Cameron fairly scrupulously resists what I have often termed “opulitis” - the tendency of movie-makers to make everything bigger and more glamorous than anything ever seen in life. With the sole exception of Caledon Hockley's suite, Cameron works to observe the historic record of Titanic's physical aspect as it was known in the '90s, even if he is not always entirely successful.
And his deviations from that record still result in some visual delights. While Caledon Hockley would not have been able to order lamb chops in Titanic's actual Verandah Restaurant, at least we get to see the Verandah, quite scrupulously re-created, giving a very convincing impression of what it must have been like to see it filled with diners and staff. If there were not actually table lamps in the First Class dining room – or carpet on its floor - there is a meticulously-crafted simulacrum of its paneling and its strapwork ceiling.
Later in the film, once Titanic strikes the iceberg, it becomes very easy indeed to quibble with the way Cameron treats the historic record, but again, there are images that drive home the scope of the tragedy in a way no mere recitative of fact would convey to the mass-audience viewer. When Rose orders the shocked elevator boy to take her to E Deck, the cab of the elevator comes to rest in rising water. When the boy abandons Rose, taking his elevator back up, water pours out of its cab, an unnerving, beautifully observed touch that might never have happened, but which lets us know how fast – and how horribly – things are unraveling aboard The Ship Magnificent.
The film also gives the lay viewer important information not often considered in articles and stories about Titanic: The scope of her structural failure is made clear, even if not every detail can be considered accurate. Many people, even today, have an idea that Titanic slipped beneath the waves whole, and rests in one piece. The Edwardians certainly believed that, and in fact, author Clive Cussler still gave the theory enough credence to construct his novel Raise the Titanic! around it as late as 1976. No one seeing James Cameron's Titanic can leave the theatre under any illusions about how sorely the ship's structure was tested, and how inevitable its failure was.
The movie also gives an excellent sense of the mounting panic and escalating chaos during the sinking. Again, not every detail of the sinking sequences is supported by the historic record; Cameron was making a commercial entertainment, not a documentary. But the tilt of the decks, the desperate efforts of passengers to maintain some footing on them, the fall of the funnel onto Fabrizio (a fate that actually seems to have befallen John Jacob Astor IV) all make it clear: Things happened that night too awful to witness, let alone experience. The shot of a passenger falling from the stern, hitting a propeller on the way down, might not be the way it happened, but it's true enough in the sense that the physical world went mad for a time on April 15, 1912.
And Cameron displays great knowledge and delicacy in some details: Much of the music score for the film is Irish in derivation, a graceful tribute to all the Irish souls who built and staffed and lost Titanic. The bit of paneling to which Rose and Jack cling after the sinking was quite real; it was from the First Class smoking room, and its original rests in the collections of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.
James Cameron's Titanic, then, is a bit hazy on its facts; the buffs and scholars are quite right to examine the film and to document its deviations from the historic record. But there are many truths contained in the movie's three hours and fourteen minutes. There are lyrical ones, like the shot of the porpoises running ahead of the ship: The joy of this greatest of Man's creations being welcomed into the sea for the first time could hardly be clearer. And there are grim ones, like the drowned woman passenger floating, silhouetted against the chandelier of the flooded First Class lounge: Who, when Titanic was envisioned and built, could have foreseen that a lady of wealth and breeding might come to such an end aboard the greatest ship in the world?
Titanic is not a perfect movie, particularly for those who know the ship well, and who respect the work of scholars who have labored – and continue to labor – so effectively to find out everything possible about the ship and her fate. But given the limitations of the Hollywood movie-making system, which demand so many compromises in the quest for profits, Cameron has done a remarkable job of bringing a ship – and her era – back to life.
Sandy McLendon, formerly Senior Editor at Modernism Magazine, has written about architecture, film, design and fashion for numerous publications, in addition to lecturing about the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Donen.