Honest Abe Says: 3 Stars
Star-crossed lovers aside, Cameron's epic is about as accurate as it gets.
Before its release in December of 1997, many predicted TITANIC, made on a paltry budget of $200 million, to be a colossal failure, an iceberg in the path of James Cameron's career. The disaster spectacle defied that prediction, grossing well over $1 billion worldwide, and then cleaning up at the Oscars for good measure. Now, one hundred years since Titanic gave up the ghost in the North Atlantic, Cameron, the self-proclaimed "King of the World," is bringing the epic love story back to theaters, where just another billion dollars or so will reclaim the box office record, surpassing...Cameron's AVATAR. We're not too concerned about that here at The American Film Company. And we'll leave the quality of the film to critics and moviegoers. What we want to know is, how does TITANIC fare as a piece of history?
What It Got Right:
Cameron lived up to his perfectionist reputation during production. The starboard of Titanic was reproduced ninety percent to scale. For portside shots, such as its departure out of Southampton, the film was flipped (meaning any text had to be written backwards, Kate Winslet's hat was lifted on the opposite side, drivers' steering wheels were switched to the left, etc.). This sort of attention to detail became even more meticulous throughout the interior set design. Rooms, hallways, gangways, and decks were all exact replicas. Oak was used for the grand staircase and furniture, rather than more cost effective plywood because, if oak was used in the original, Cameron wanted oak too. The company that had woven Titanic's original carpet 1912 did it again for the movie. Crockery was authentic, down to White Star Line's logo stamped on each piece of cutlery. Deck heights and widths on the exterior were built to scale. Like the carpets, stage one's davits were also built by the same company that provided them to the original.
As for Titanic's power, the engine room sequence was shot on the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a World War II vessel with still functioning triple-expansion reciprocating steam engines. Two massive boilers were also reproduced with a mirror placed behind them, creating an effect of an everlasting boiler column.
The authenticity didn't stop with the set design or the extravagant, era appropriate costumes. Cameron stuck a 35mm camera in an ROV and with one hundred feet of tether, crept inside the wreck 13,000 feet below the sea. He was the first to do so. The sequence we see in the opening of the film is an amalgamation of actual wreck footage, miniatures, and a submerged set duplicating the debris.
Most recently, Cameron changed the star field in the night sky for the re-release following a criticism from astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose alleged "snarky" e-mail was enough to convince Cameron that the right star field for April 15, 1912 ought to be in the film.
As for the story and impending disaster, survivor accounts corroborate much of what Cameron presented. Figures such as John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, seen in the film, were wealthy businessmen who went down with the ship. Guggenheim did in fact refuse a lifebelt, instead dressing to the nines in preparation to meet his Maker. Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) was given a loyal portrayal. So too were shipbuilder Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), who was deemed a coward for taking a spot on a lifeboat.
Ice warnings were ignored and Titanic's starboard scraped a nearly invisible iceberg late on the night of April 14th, though the manner in which this happened, and what 1st Officer William Murdoch's commands actually were remains a mystery. Had lookout Frederick Fleet been given binoculars, he likely would have seen it sooner, as Cameron purports in the film. An impromptu game of soccer was indeed played with stray ice on the decks. Most others barely reacted to the collision, either unaware of what happened, or coolly refusing to believe the wound was fatal. Ill-equipped with only sixteen lifeboats when a manageable forty-eight would have been enough to save every soul on board, fates were sealed. Women and children were ordered into the boats as first class men bravely stood back to watch them go. Third-class passengers may have been locked in steerage, just one of the plot devices used that will never be confirmed one way or another. Cameron's was the first Titanic film to depict the ship breaking in two before diving into the abyss. Survivor accounts vary on this point with the overruling theory of the time supporting her going down intact. Many survivors made this claim, adamantly disputing the splitting theory. However, Dr. Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreckage - the bow and stern separated by better than 1,200 feet - proves Titanic did break up before she plunged. 5th Officer Harold Lowe's (Ioan Gruffudd) boat was the only one of the sixteen to go back in search of survivors in the water, and the Carpathia rescued the 705 who escaped the disaster.
What It Got Wrong:
Onerous as it may be to accept, the forbidden Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Winslet) romance was invented. So too was Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), and his "Heart of the Ocean" blue diamond. Class distinction was alive and well in 1912, but historians have complained that Cameron took this to the extreme. With the exception of Rose and Molly Brown, the first class passengers are obnoxious and nefarious, while the immigrant third class exude joy and nobility.
The most notable point of historical contention since 1997 has been the treatment of the 1st Officer Murdoch character. In the film, Murdoch restrains rowdy passengers with his pistol when they attempt to force themselves onto the lifeboats. He then shoots two of them. Wracked with guilt over this in conjunction with his inability to save the ship from the berg, Murdoch turns the gun on himself. As a form of apology after TITANIC's release, 20th-Century Fox sent one of its top executives to the Scottish town of Dalbeattie with an engraved plaque in Murdoch's honor and a donation to the Murdoch Memorial Fund. While many survivors maintained that Murdoch assisted passengers into lifeboats, no matter their class, the film's account is not unfounded. Like the opposing reports of the state of Titanic as she sank, eyewitnesses remembered seeing an officer commit suicide. Some said that man was Murdoch. Others recalled an officer firing his weapon and threatening to shoot "like a dog" any man that tried to get in the lifeboat. So while most prefer to err on the side of heroism as it relates to Murdoch and the other officers, the opinion on the matter is not unanimous.
Also worth noting is the band. It is true that they went down with the ship, playing on, as was their duty. Cameron heightens the tragedy in these moments through the band's beautiful rendition of the tear-jerking hymn, "Nearer My God to Thee." They did not play this, nor any other hymn. The bandsmen went down performing what they had played since Titanic set sail: cheerful waltzes. But that doesn't make for good drama.
As for the inevitable anachronisms, Rose giving the finger, wearing bright red lipstick, and sharing a suite with her fiance, are just a few that the film was guilty of.
TITANIC is a breathtaking event movie that moved heaven and earth to get it right. Sure, Cameron used made up melodrama to tell the tale, but the details surrounding it were accurate, the experience authentic. Even the water soaking the actors was about 60 degrees. When they react to its temperature, they're not acting. So when moviegoers head out to the theater to see it in 3D for the first time, they can rest assured that this is one historical disaster that didn't need much re-writing.
“Third class quarters on the Titanic had only two bathtubs - to be shared among 700 passengers.”