Reviewed by Stuart Kelly
As a Titanic enthusiast since the age of nine, I’ve unhesitatingly bought each home release of James Cameron’s epic of the late 90s as they have been made available. This includes the video release in 1998, the VHS Collector’s Edition in 2000 and the DVD “Delux” collector’s edition in 2005. So, it was with some enthusiasm that I purchased the 3D Blu Ray edition when it was released last week.
I do not intend here to offer a review of the film itself, so much has been written about it and in April this year, a thorough reappraisal of the value of the film and its fictional and historically inaccurate elements was admirably covered by Sandy McLendon. I will offer some comments on the latest repackaging of a movie that I’m sure nearly all readers of this review will have already seen at least once. For myself, I estimate I have seen it at least thirty times over the past fourteen years.
Beyond seeing the film for its fictional story, I became very interested in viewing it for its stunning and broadly accurate sets as I was interested in the interiors of the Olympic class liners. The sets contribute significantly to the film being a beautiful spectacle to watch. On this 3D Blu Ray release, if you have a 3D Blu Ray Player and a 3D enabled television, the effect of the restoration to 3D is absolutely breath-taking. The picture is clearer than ever before and the characters come to life in a way. During the sinking, the portholes pop out of the ship’s hull and into your living room. It is by far the best quality home release of the film, not just because of the enhanced picture that quickly makes you forget how old the film now is but also because of the vertical widening of the picture. The 3D verson has a different aspect ratio to the 2D version, meaning the upper and lower borders of the picture are extended to reveal the whole of the view captured by Cameron’s crew in 1996 and 1997. Although it is only a small physical difference, it gives the film a less restrained feel and it more like you are part of it. If you are an avid fan of the film, I cannot recommend seeing it in 3D enough. If you’re not, then the cleaned up 2D version which is packaged as a separate disc and released on its own should be enough for you.
Turning to the bonus features, they are substantially a reissue of those that came with the 2005 “Delux” release but minus the cute 1912 news reel, the set tour, the press featurettes and the Fox TV special which featured interviews with survivors and Leo (who is conspicuous by his absence from all the other interviews and commentaries with the cast in this release). The deleted scenes, parodies and three commentaries from Cameron, Cast & Crew and the “historical” commentaries are included on the 2D disc and special features disc as are the deep dive exploration from 1995, approximately 1000 photographs, the making-of “pods” and production timelapse are all reproduced here. The Cameron and Cast and Crew commentaries are fascinating to listen to, with James Cameron taking you through the decisions he took when making the film and recalling some of the dilemmas he faced in making the big decisions. The Cast and Crew commentary features Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Jonathan Hyde, the late Gloria Stuart, Victor Garber and Ioan Gruffudd from the cast and the larger than life Jon Landau, James Horner, Martin Laing among others for the crew. The most striking thing about their commentary is the happiness with which they recall the making of the film and it is obvious most of them harbour pleasant eemotions about the time which are infectious as you listen to them. The third billed and least impressive commentary is the so-called “historical” commentary offered by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall. Granted, they do occasionally say things of interest, especially to those who are deeply interested in the Titanic story, for example that Colonel Gracie would always freeload by taking two cigars if he was offered one. The rest of the commentary they spend mostly talking about the film making process and how wonderfully accurate the story and the set is. It’s perhaps understandable as they were both hired by Cameron to act as consultants for the film. However, much of what they say doesn’t appear to have been even written on back of an envelope before they recorded the commentary and has already been covered by Cameron and the cast and crew in their commentaries. There is not the passion conveyed by Cameron and the cast and crew and it makes dry listening. A commentary given by one of the many other Titanic historians available who were independent of the making of the film that gives erudite and focussed explanation of what really happened would have been much more interesting and valuable in my honest opinion.
The deleted scenes are hugely enjoyable to watch, especially if you have seen the cinema release of the film several times. They have been restored and could easily have been fitted into the film to create a new edit of it. The scenes cover many historical aspects of the Titanic story which I feel would have been more appropriate to keep in, most notably Mrs Strauss refusing to leave her husband, Molly Brown taking charge of Boat 6, the Californian wireless operator being brusquely cut off and Jacob Astor cutting open his life jacket in the presence of Gym Instructor T W MacAuley to name a few. There are a few scenes such as the iceberg gliding past Molly Brown as she asks for “a little ice, honey” and the fight between Leo and David Warner in the dining room which undoubtedly would have made the final cut even cheesier and their non-inclusion is very much to Cameron’s credit. Nonetheless, the inclusion of several historical moments in the deleted scenes may lead you to question Cameron’s assertion in his introduction to his commentary on the scenes that the released edit of the film was the best one possible.
After revisiting what I’d already seen in 2005, I turned to what was new in 2012. There is a light hearted, quick action compilation of the cast and crew having fun on the set with a Talking Heads soundtrack providing a jaunty musical backdrop. There are also a substantial number of new photographs which would take hours to look through however I would recommend the costume design drawings and a series of Black and White polaroids taken illicitly by Billy Zane on set. From my personal knowledge however, I feel that the special features would also have been greatly enhanced if Kate Winslet’s and the other actors’ screen tests had been included in the special features. Including the three educational movies for the ‘James Camerons’ Titanic Explorer’ CD-ROMs released in 1998 and not seen since would also have been a very welcome addition.
The most significant new features are the two documentaries that were specially made for this release of the film: ‘Reflections on Titanic’ which takes you from the earliest stages of the making of the film to the 3D re-release this year; and ‘Titanic: the Final Word with James Cameron’ which is an hour and a half long exceedingly detailed analysis of technical aspects of the Titanic’s real sinking set in a board room with Cameron chairing a meeting of eight people he describes as among “the world’s leading Titanic experts”.
‘Reflections on the Titanic’ is by far the more interesting and engaging of the documentaries. It features interviews with significant members of the cast and crew (minus Leo) but also film critics and film historians. It graphically illustrates what a mindbogglingly massive undertaking the making of the film was with the main set being effectively a substantial studio complex being built from scratch in Mexico, an relatively untried lead actress in Kate Winslet and pioneering used of CGI and other visual effects which led to the film running substantially over budget and behind schedule. The anxiety of making the film in those circumstances was significantly added to by the naysayers who took a column in Variety every week decrying the film’s prospects of success. To hear Cameron and his producers talk about how they defied expectation is inspirational and does fill you with admiration for them even if you may have reservations about the artistic licence Cameron took with many aspects of the Titanic story. He’s even humble enough to say he should not have quoted that cheesiest of cheesy lines when he accepted the hoard of gold statuettes he received shortly after the original release. “It teaches you not to quote your own movie when accepting an oscar” he ruefully says fourteen years after the event. The documentary finishes with footage of inside the Albert Hall in March this year for the 3D premier which brought a significant number of the lead cast back together for one more glittering evening fifteen years later. Producer Jon Landau concludes that this event closed the book on Titanic for him which did make you feel a bit sad as the documentary was so enjoyable, it left me wanting for more films about the Titanic of a similar calibre.
‘Titanic: the Final Word with James Cameron’ is perhaps not what you would feel like watching unless you have a very specific interest in the Titanic’s actual sinking. Cameron declares at the beginning “No one gets out of this room until we piece together, once and for all, what happened in Titanic’s final minutes.”. He and his 8 American buddies proceed to do this over the next ninety minutes with his Canadian drawl contrasting with the thoroughbred stateside accents around the table. There are snap shot interviews with some of the “experts” and two of the most memorable moments occur when Bill Sauder and Ken Marschall begin sobbing over things personal to them that brought home that the ship is indeed no more and is dead at the bottom of the ocean. Otherwise, the most striking thing is Cameron’s egotistical dominance of the proceedings. The room has a boardroom feel to it and when there is disagreement, I wondered at times if Cameron was going to turn into Donald Trump and tell one of the guys “you’re fired” for contradicting his theory that everyone could have been saved if the poor souls of 1912 had just thought to swing the engines full astern and shoot towards that light on the horizon. The conclusion of the forensic (nay minute) analysis of the sinking is that he will have to reshoot his movie and Ken will have to re-do all his paintings because of what they have discovered. Cameron similarly concludes that 2012 marks the end of his Titanic work and he will be moving to other projects which again makes you feel sad if you’ve managed to make it all the way through this decidedly more cerebral approach to the Titanic story than you may have come to expect from the great man.
In conclusion, I was overall glad I have bought this latest release of a movie that has complemented my personal interest in the Titanic which was well established before 1998. It is a movie that has brought the fascination of the Titanic and other ships to millions of people in many different cultures around the world and has spurned a creativity that led to things like the Queen Mary 2 and possibly even my own website about the Olympic’s surviving fittings. The making of James Cameron’s Titanic was a hugely positive thing. Although personally, as a person from Scotland, I can’t finish this review without expressing my disappointment that Cameron did not take the opportunity to edit out the worst historical inaccuracy in his spectacular film. It is the libellous portray of First Officer William McMaster Murdoch of Dalbeattie, Dumfriesshire. I remember seeing in the Scottish media before I’d even seen the film in the cinema in 1998 the outcry of local residents in Murdoch’s home town about Cameron’s portrayal of him as a murderer and a coward when the reality was Murdoch died saving people’s lives and indeed his more liberal interpretation of the women and children first order led to many more lives being saved than there would have been otherwise. While Cameron addresses this in his commentary, describing Murdoch as a “stud” (not a word common in Dalbeattie or in 1912 I’d imagine) and appeared to go out of his way to praise Murdoch in Ghosts of the Abyss, the fact remains that in the most significant opportunity to address this issue he has had, Cameron has chosen not to. Given some of the criticism of the film over the years not just on the question of Murdoch, I cannot really understand why Cameron did not take the opportunity to re-edit his wonderful film. A re-edit would have been more effective in renewing interest in it than only converting it to 3-D. I hold out hope that he will do so in the future so we can all have the pleasure once again of revisiting ‘Titanic’ anew.
Visit the www.rmsolympic.org website.