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Through a Lens Darkly: Short Reflections on Titanic (1997)

Updated on April 19, 2012

By Hannah P.

100 years ago large hats were fashionable and women wore them on a daily basis, cars were a novelty, and so was household running water and electricity. 100 years ago wealthy people changed multiple times a day, the rich and the poor were strictly segregated, and the idea of a wealthy woman and a poor man getting together was utterly “incomprehensible.” 100 years ago the rich and powerful were breaking new ground with buildings taller than any seen before, conquering the sky with improved flying machines, and mastering the seas with swift and sturdy ships. In this era of supersized egos and perceived superiority the ship RMS Titanic sailed, her builders confident that their creation was “unsinkable.” And on this infamous ship screenwriter and director James Cameron placed two characters from opposite social spectrums, through which to tell an epic story of romance and tragedy.

For those unfamiliar with this film, the story tracks the Titanic during its maiden voyage and subsequent sinking through the story of two star-crossed lovers, Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater. The romance between poor artist Jack and wealthy socialite Rose is the heart of the movie, providing a way for the audience to experience the emotional journey of the Titanic tragedy. Along the way the two protagonists meet prominent historical figures and lead the audience through the many levels of the ship, from the boiler room to the ship’s bow. This journey allows the audience to experience the voyage of the Titanic from different angles and to marvel at her grandeur, paving the way for a heart-wrenching catastrophe when the ship strikes ice and sinks.

The Titanic was known for it’s magnificence and filmmakers put every effort into recreating history down to the last detail. After months of painstaking craftsmanship on all fronts the results were able to showcase the opulence of the wealthy and the conservatism of poor society. By juxtaposing characters from opposite ends of the social sphere and recreating that world in perfect detail the audience is given a thorough tour of this small glimpse into Edwardian life. This glimpse is given realism through the many historical figures that are represented in the movie, John Jacob Astor and his wife Madeline, Captain Edward Smith, Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, Margaret Brown, and Benjamin Guggenheim, to name a few. These historical figures (and many more) are famous for their actions during the sinking. Some were heroes and some were cowards, but all shared the same tragic experience. Tragedies tend to reveal people’s true characters, bringing out both the best and worst in people. The best was brought out in people like Captain Smith and Margaret Brown (or Molly as history has come to know her), for they kept their cool in the face of disaster and helped give many of Titanic’s passengers a chance at survival by keeping order, giving instructions, and taking command for those too frightened to make a move. People like John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim are remembered for their bravery during the disaster and how they put others before themselves, facing death with dignity and poise. The worst was brought out in people like Bruce Ismay, the President of the White Star Line. He became the most famous of Titanic’s cowards for stowing away on a lifeboat knowing that someone else would die in his place.

However, some of the reenactments of the film, particularly those of factual historical people like Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch, aren’t completely historically accurate. The film shows the Captain facing his own demise with resignation, but his blank-faced refusal to help a desperate woman and hopeless end doesn’t hold up with the heroism shown previously. Most prominently cited as historically inaccurate in this film is the portrayal of Officer Murdoch’s death. He is shown to temporarily accept a bribe, shoot a passenger and then commit suicide, choosing to end his life out of guilt and fear. While there are testimonies that an officer did shoot himself during the sinking, the historical evidence holds in favor that it was most likely not Officer Murdoch who did so. Most of the surviving passengers of the Titanic remembered Captain Smith as an “honorable man” and Officer Murdoch as “calm and courageous,” so the defamation of certain crew members was done for dramatic effect, and not as a truly honest reenactment.

Another point of contention regarding the history portrayed in this movie is that of modernism. Modern gestures, language and values creep into the storyline and muddy it. The story of Jack and Rose is a portrayal of ill-fated love, a thrilling tale when set against the backdrop of the Titanic’s sinking. It is true that social barriers were strictly enforced and that wealthy “good girls” like Rose were discouraged from pursuing relationships with the lower classes. It is also true that people fought against the constraints of the time, for not everyone was traditional and conservative in their values. However, the sexual freedom, rebellion and indiscretion that the protagonists exhibit are more reflective of modern mores than the Edwardian era. Perhaps by inserting a contemporary romance in a period drama filmmakers hoped that a modern audience would connect with it better, but most audiences, especially those who love history and classic romances, don’t need immorality to “connect” with a film.

To conclude, this film is not a perfect reflection of factual history, but can a film ever truly be one? Movies are merely an interpretation, a collective viewpoint on a person, place or event. This holds true for Titanic (1997), because it is a movie inspired by true events, not simply a documentation of them. Historical inaccuracies are to be expected when someone (in this case a director and screenwriter) twists the facts to meet desired ends. The result is a visual masterpiece, a portrayal of a narrow snippet of time in which a major life-altering event occurred. The thrilling story draws you in and makes you want to learn more about the actual history. So if apprehensiveness overtakes you when it comes to this film, simply take it with a grain of salt and enjoy reliving the visual splendor of an era long gone.

(originally published in Femnista - www.charitysplace.com)

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