As a spectacle Titanic, the 1997 version, is a marvel. We are given front row seats to one of the most tragic, yet awesome, events in history. We even see the mighty ship sailing along in broad daylight in all its pristine beauty. And in living color too. I love movies for that very thing. They provide us with a window into the past, a chance to see what life was really like in bygone days. When I watch Zulu (1964), for example, I am transported for a couple of hours to a sweltering day in Natal 1879, to observe a battle that has only existed in books until then. In 1993 Steven Spielberg allowed us to watch a real live dinosaur bite the top off a tree in Jurassic Park, something that no human has ever seen before, and I shall always be indebted to him for that. The magic of the movies is there for us all to experience, but it often comes at a price. The creators of all that magic sometimes tend to regard their audiences as little more than paying dummies who will accept anything dished up to them, regardless of logic or common sense. I often get the impression that directors truly expect a patron to arrive at a theatre, pay the admission fee, unscrew his or her head, and then screw on a pumpkin in its place, before sitting down to watch the show. Titanic is a perfect example of this expectation.
Rose & Jack braving the elements
One of the first things that annoyed me in Titanic was the scene in which Rose (Kate Winslet) decided to commit suicide by jumping overboard into the freezing cold North Atlantic late one night. The first class dining salons were over 150 meters from the stern, yet the script has her run all the way to the rear end of the vessel in order to leap into the sea. Why not just have her jump over the side? As she climbs onto the stern railing (dressed in the flimsiest of gowns, by the way) she is spotted by Jack (Leo DiCaprio), who is lying on a bench, enjoying a quiet cigarette and gazing at the stars – in his shirtsleeves! Evidently, Jack does not feel the cold like other people. Neither does Rose, as she will aptly prove later in the picture. Maybe, they think it’s a balmy night in the Bahamas and not an icy North Atlantic night on an ocean strewn with pack ice.
Jack appears to have changed clothes?
Anyway, as we know, he saves Rose and is promptly accused by a couple of crewmen of assaulting her. Suddenly, out of all the 2,200 passengers and crew on board, who should appear but Rose’s fiancée and his bodyguard! How could they immediately be aware of what was transpiring at the stern of the ship? When her fiancée asks what she was doing there, Rose replies that she was leaning over the back of the vessel to look at those spinning things that drive the ship. ‘The propellers?’ he suggests. Later, when she happens to mention to the ship’s designer Mr. Andrews that the vessel only has lifeboats for about half those on board, he chuckles, ‘Rose, you don’t miss a thing, do you?’ A few hours earlier she had no idea what a propeller was.
the broad daylight, 1st Class Deck spitting lessons
I admire James Cameron as a director, but why on Earth did he agree to that dumb, disgusting scene in which Jack teaches Rose how to ‘spit like a man’? It is 1912, broad daylight, on the 1st Class Deck of the world’s greatest ship, in the presence of the cream of high society with whom Rose is on a first-name basis. Are we really expected to believe that she would do this? Would she be participating in hawking and spitting onto the deck below? Would Jack even be permitted anywhere near the 1st Class Deck, for that matter, much less be permitted to instruct her on the noble art of hawking and spitting? ‘Look at the range on that thing’, he boasts as he proudly lets fly. The scene is vile and totally unrealistic for the time and place. If it is intended to build their relationship in the eyes of the audience, to have us marvel at their growing appreciation of each other, well, it fails on every level. It is stupid, unrealistic and disgusting.
During the depiction of the sinking, Cameron chose to throw in a little extra drama (as if there was not enough already), by having First Officer William Murdoch shoot a couple of passengers and then blow his own brains out. Eye-witnesses were known to have said they saw an officer do so that night, but they did not know his name. Most historians remain unconvinced of it, however. Today’s descendants of Officer Murdoch were understandably incensed by the license taken by Cameron with the memory of their ancestor who perished in the sinking. They complained and the director flew to Britain and apologized to the family before donating $8,500 to the memorial fund in Murdoch’s hometown. I have read volumes about the Titanic tragedy and there has never been one word of evidence to condone besmirching the man’s reputation or memory. As for donating a paltry $8,500 as compensation? An insult.
Rose in search of the Rose, Jack & the overcoat on the run
By far the most glaring error in the movie concerns the amount of time Rose spends in near-freezing water. I know the romance is make believe, but the temperature of the water is not. During the attempted suicide scene Jack went to great lengths to tell Rose (and us) what it would be like to jump into icy water. He explains how it is like being stabbed with a thousand knives, how you cannot think of anything ‘except the pain’, and so on. In reality, of course, a person would lapse into unconsciousness inside 5 minutes and die of hyperthermia 3 or 4 minutes later, as indeed did the majority of the 1,500 who died that night. Very few drowned. If only they had Rose’s constitution!
On the makeshift raft
On Carpathia, about to discover the jewel in the overcoat pocket
First, we see her dash down below and wade through the icy water in search of Jack who is chained to a pipe in the Purser’s Room. She eventually finds the room, but has to dash off again ‘to get help’. None is available, but she comes across a fire-axe which she takes back to Jack. She cuts him free (after a couple of unbelievably bad practice swings), and together they wade off down the corridors. Presumably, the ‘stabbing pain’ and the inability to think of anything but the agony only applies to water outside the ship, because neither Jack nor Rose is even shivering when they find themselves back on deck.
Rose’s fiancée gives her his coat to wear and she gets into a lifeboat. Then she gets out of the lifeboat, finds Jack again, and they run off, pursued by her irate and armed fiancée. To escape him they plunge back into the freezing water inside the rapidly sinking vessel, wade and swim about for an eternity, before again making it to the deck. Still showing no signs of being even slightly chilly, they climb up the hundreds of meters of deck to the stern, where they wait for the inevitable plunge to the bottom. The ship goes down and they are back in the water – again. Rose clambers onto an ornate chunk of wood (still wearing the soggy overcoat, mind you), and lies there while all around her freeze to death.
She is still lying there when a lifeboat returns looking for survivors. She can only croak, being extremely weakened by her ordeal, so what do you think she does? She slides off her makeshift raft and swim/paddles her way (still in the overcoat) to a dead officer nearby, plucks a whistle from his mouth, blows on it and is rescued. Hallelujah! But wait – there’s more. We next see her aboard the rescue ship RMS Carpathia – on the deck! And she is still wearing the soggy, freezing overcoat! One might expect that a survivor who has narrowly survived death through hyperthermia would be in a nice warm bed below, but no. Rose is left on the deck as the vessel steams for New York through the North Atlantic icefields. And she is still wearing that overcoat. No wonder she lives to a hundred!
There is a lot to like about the 1997 film Titanic, but surely some thought should have been given to convincing theatre audiences that at least some of what Rose experienced is believable. How could 1,500 souls freeze to death in 5-8 minutes in the water, yet she could last for more than an hour? Make-believe is fine, but when you toss a couple of lovers into an historic setting, that does not entitle you to suspend the laws of physics at will. Give your audience a smidgeon of credit. We are not complete idiots. Not really.