By Craig Leask
Everyone knows the story. The British passenger liner R.M.S. Titanic, promoted as “unsinkable”, struck an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City in the early hours of April 15, 1912. Of the estimated 2,224 passengers and crew on board, more than 1,500 died. The fact that this is a true story, and not something created in Hollywood, has made it irresistible to directors, writers and studio heads looking to capitalize on the continued lore surrounding the disaster. The first movie to be released on the subject was entitled Saved From the Titanic, which premiered just 29 days following the vessels historic sinking.
Since then, there have been no fewer than 17 movies made in various languages and 25 television adaptations, which include television series which have a Titanic themed episode. In fact the pilot episode of the very popular Downton Abbey (2010) opens with news of the Crawley family heir being lost on the ill-fated ship, changing the life of the family and the dynasty’s hierarchy.
In this article I will explore some of the various interpretations of the story as presented by directors throughout the past 100 plus years, particularly as historical data was supplemented by the September 1, 1985 discovery of the wreck by Jean-Louis Michel and Dr. Robert Ballard.
Saved from The Titanic (1912)
Saved from the Titanic is a 1912 American silent motion picture short starring 22-year old Dorothy Gibson, a passenger who survived the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic, and a co-writer of the movies script. Gibson, an actress, was returning from vacationing in Europe, joining the ship at Cherbourg in France with her mother.
According to Gibson, on the evening of the sinking, she was still playing bridge in a first-class saloon at 11:40 pm when the Titanic struck the iceberg. Upon investigating the screeching noise of the collision and realizing the deck beginning to lift, she retrieved her mother and headed to the lifeboats. Ultimately Gibson and her mother were among the 28 passengers loaded into the first lifeboat to be launched (Titanic lifeboats each held 65 people). They were rescued five and a half hours later by the R.M.S. Carpathia.
Gibson, urged on by her agent/producer Jules Brulatour, began co-writing the script, (based upon a fictionalized version of herself), a mere few days following her return to New York City. The plot surrounds her recount of living through the disaster to her (fictional) family. The 10-minute film (a typical length for silent films of the time) is supplemented with stock footage of icebergs and images of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. As a final touch of authenticity, Gibson wore the outfit she was actually wearing the night of the catastrophe.
In an effort to capitalize on the international attention surrounding the sinking, Saved from the Titanic was filmed in only one week at Éclair’s studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and on a derelict ship in the nearby New York Harbor. The end to end editing and distribution process was rushed to get the one reel film into US theatres just 29 days after the tragedy.
Unfortunately, a fire at Éclair Studios in March 1914 destroyed all known prints of Saved from the Titanic and as a result is now considered a lost film. The only remaining evidence of the film are some production stills which had been printed in the Moving Picture News and Motion Picture World magazines at the time. Gibson reportedly suffered a mental breakdown after completing the film.
44 years prior to James Cameron delivering his version of Titanic, which focuses on the romantic pairing of two lead characters whose passion is unfortunately interrupted by the boat’s sinking, Jean Negulesco had directed his romantic version of the tale. The difference between Cameron’s effects heavy version, augmented with Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, Negulesco’s version centers the focus on the family drama of a wife leaving her husband during the tragedy. The similarity in the two films is found in the plot lines which are centered around the romantic stories behind the characters – both before and during the disaster.
In Negulesco’s Titanic, the engaging story is based upon Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) having boarded the ill-fated ship with her two children, daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) and son Norman (Harper Carter) leaving England to return home to America. Tired of living within the constraints of the British upper-class system she is quietly leaving her marriage to her very British husband Richard Ward Sturges (Clifton Webb). Learning late of his family’s departure, Richard purchases a ticket off of a third-class passenger and boards the ship to stop his family’s departure. Richard beautifully maintains his strong British stiff upper lip approach till the end, even stating to his family as they are heading to the lifeboats, to “dress warmly, but properly.”
As the growing tension of Webb and Stanwyck’s marital drama is played out, the Titanic’s escalating progress towards its impending collision with the iceberg continues. Both story lines mirroring each other as they speed toward an unavoidable end.
As the viewer knows the fate of the famous liner prior to entering the theatre, the film focuses on the drama surrounding the stories behind the real-life passengers on the voyage rather than the fate of the ship. In doing so, Negulesco includes the stories of real passengers and crew to support and legitimize the story. He includes accurate descriptions of: Captain E.J. Smith (Brian Ahern), First Officer Murdoch (Barry Bernard), John Jacob Astor and his 19-year old bride Madeleine (William Johnstone and Frances Bergen), and Benjamin Guggenheim (Camillo Guercio). And, as with most movie versions of the Titanic story, Mrs. J.J. “Unsinkable Molly” Brown (although for unknown reasons her name was changed in the film to Maude Young), perfectly played by Thelma Ritter.
Barbara Stanwyck said in an interview, that the filming of Titanic in particular, the scene where she is being evacuated from the sinking ship, had a powerful effect on her, recalling: ” I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were recreating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and I couldn’t stop.”
A Night To Remember (1958)
This British film was based upon what is considered to be one of the most accurate books on the subject, written by Titanic expert, Walter Lord. Lord’s 1955 book of the same name was extremely successful and is considered one of the foremost resources on the Titanic. In researching his book, the author personally met with and interviewed 63 survivors, using this information to accurately craft the tale of the ship’s construction, its short life and its abrupt and tragic end. Much later, Walter Lord was retained to consult on James Cameron’s 1997 version of Titanic.
A Night To Remember is regarded as one of the most historically accurate Titanic films, with the notable exception of not featuring the ship breaking in half as that was not known until the ship’s remains were found in 1985. Some of the special effects scenes were ‘borrowed’ from a 1943 German propaganda film also called Titanic, which was made during World War II by Tobis Productions in Berlin. The film was commissioned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to depict British and American capitalism as the root cause of the ship’s demise. Tobis Productions went as far as creating a fictional, yet heroic German officer as part of the ship’s crew. This addition to the crew was made to demonstrate the bravery of the Germans in comparison to the cowardly actions of British officers.
Like Lord’s book, the film is also known as the most accurate portrayal of the ship and the subsequent disaster. This is predominately due to producer William MacQuitty’s involvement in the project. According to The Making of ‘A Night to Remember’ (1993), a documentary produced by Ray Johnson, extreme efforts were taken by MacQuitty to ensure details of the ship and accounts of the collision and sinking were exacting.
For filming, sets of public rooms were constructed to exact standards and details obtained by utilizing original plans and construction photographs. These sets were erected on enormous platforms which could be angled to mimic those angles which passengers would have experienced as the boat listed and finally sank. As regular filming is completed out of sequence, the required degrees of listing were recorded on each page of the script to ensure consistency.
For exterior scenes, MacQuitty constructed both a scale model of the full liner as well as a full-scale reconstruction of the center section of the ship which included 4 lifeboats and 2 funnels (requiring over 4,000 tons of steel to construct), and utilized the very real Asturias Ocean Liner which was in the process of being dismantled in the W.D. Ward shipyards in Clyde, England. As the Asturias port side had already been demolished, filming could only be completed on the still intact starboard side. Shots were mirrored when required to show the vessel from the port side. To make the white colored hull of the Asturias resemble the Titanic, MacQuitty contracted students from Glasco university to paint the entire starboard hull with the proper White Star Line colors. Finally, MacQuitty was able to obtain lifeboats from the Frankonia (Churchill’s floating headquarters during the war), which was also in the process of being dismantled. These lifeboats were selected as they were identical to those on the Titanic.
One thing that ensures this version of the Titanic differs from most other versions is the pace of the movie and where MacQuitty chose to focus the action. The film moves very quickly, utilizing the introduction of the movie to briefly introduce the characters before striking the iceberg. This allows the balance of the movie to focus on the real horror faced by those on board the ill-fated ship and for the viewer to be naturally chilled by the emotional impact of the very real disaster.
Finally, this is the only movie about the Titanic that addresses the issue of the S.S. Californian, a ship at rest within sight of the Titanic following the collision. The Californian was unresponsive and debatably “unaware” of the epic tragedy occurring some five miles from their resting location. Numerous inquiries concluded that an untold number of lives could have been saved should the Californian have responded.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)
Although not a movie about the Titanic, the Titanic’s sinking does play a major role in the film, and is one of the main reasons anyone outside of early nineteenth century Colorado knows the name Molly Brown. Although stylized and filled with numerous musical numbers, the movie, based upon the 1960 Broadway musical about the real-life adventures of Margaret Tobin Brown (July 18, 1867 – October 26, 1932), follows the rags to riches journey of the lead character as she transverses Denver society, maturing as an individual as she experiences life and society. Although an interesting life story of a larger than life character, the one event that put Molly Brown on the map was her take charge attitude during the sinking of the luxurious liner, and the famous line “Typical Brown luck – we’re unsinkable”, which led to the title of this film, the Broadway production and for her posthumous nickname “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”.
Molly Brown is best remembered for encouraging the crew in the half-filled Lifeboat No. 6 to return to the location of the Titanic’s sinking in an effort to locate and rescue any survivors. Molly had been traveling with her daughter Helen in Europe when they received a telegram informing her that her grandson was quite ill. The Titanic was the next ship leaving for the U.S. and she was able to secure a ticket.
Eventually Lifeboat No. 6 and Molly Brown were rescued by the Carpathia. Upon boarding the Carpathia, Molly took charge at assisting survivors and raised an astonishing $10,000 from the first-class passengers to assist those who had lost everything in the sinking.
In this version of the story Debbie Reynolds stars in the Oscar-nominated role, but nearly every film version of the story includes a Molly Brown character and she has been portrayed by such actresses as: Thelma Ritter Titanic (1953), Tucker McGuire A Night to Remember (1958), Cloris Leachman S.O.S. Titanic (1979), Marilu Henner Titanic (1996), Kathy Bates Titanic (1997), Judy Pretininzi Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), and Linda Kash in the miniseries Titanic (2012).
In filming the Titanic scenes for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, the production crew were able to borrow scenes from both the 1953 Titanic (hitting the iceberg) and the 1958 A Night to Remember utilizing a colourized version of the ship sinking.
Raise the Titanic (1980)
Raise the Titanic, based on the 1976 Clive Cussler novel “Raise the Titanic!” was filmed with a hefty budget ($40 million) and a fairly strong cast including: Jason Robards (Admiral James Sandecker), Richard Jordan (Dirk Pitt), David Selby (Dr. Gene Seagram), and Alec Guinness (John Bigalow, Titanic survivor). The premise is a little weak but stays close to the Clive Cussler formula – start with an historical event which results in a missing, potentially world devastating item which is lost at sea. Jump ahead a 100 or so years and race against time to thwart an enemy of mankind who is attempting to locate the lost item for evil purposes. In this case, an American governmental agency (NUMA) is racing against the Russian government to obtain a rare mineral (Byzantium), integral to a new defense system. The last remaining samples of the mineral, it is discovered, had been loaded onto the Titanic on her maiden voyage.
Although the plot line of Raise the Titanic may be a bit on the weak side, the stretch is the premise that the enormous ship sank in one piece and, due to the extreme cold temperatures, has remained in excellent shape. To raise the mighty vessel, they need only to have the iceberg damage patched and attach special marine salvage balloons to bring it back to the surface. The further stretch, and this is only my personal bias, once the ship is back on the surface, Dirk Pitt takes Dana Archibald, his love interest (Anne Archer) into one of the still dripping wet staterooms and makes love to her on one of the, also dripping wet, beds.
To film the ship, a derelict Greek ocean liner, the S.S. Athinai, was converted into a replica of the Titanic. Additionally, a scale model was constructed for use in underwater scenes. To support this, a $7 million 10-ton 50 ft. scale model was constructed for the scene where the Titanic is raised to the surface. It was later discovered that existing water tanks for filming were not large enough to support filming this very expensive prop, leading to the need to construct one of the world’s first horizon tanks for the purpose of capturing the Titanic’s raising on film. The 10-million gallon tank could create the illusion a ship was at sea. More than 50 attempts at raising the Titanic model was required until director Jerry Jameson was satisfied with the shot. Upon completion of filming, the $7 million scale model was abandoned and left to deteriorate in the tank.
Not only poorly received by critics, the film grossed approximately $15 million at the box office against its estimated $40 million budget and was deemed a flop.
This version of Titanic, directed by James Cameron, centers around the romantic challenges of a relationship which spans the very structured class system of the early 20th century. The Titanic disaster is almost secondary to the drama portrayed within the many characters in the film as Cameron used the real-life tragedy as a backdrop for his fictional love story.
Like MacQuitty’s A Night To Remember (1958), Cameron was obsessed with ensuring the details of the Titanic and its sinking were exacting for his movie. He located the carpet manufacturers who had provided flooring for the ship and contracted them to make 18,000 square feet of the original carpet for use on the sets. He did the same for all of the period dishes and wanted to have the stateroom wallpapers reproduced but in the interest of time, was persuaded to instead have artists mimic the original patterns and hand paint them onto the walls.
Time wise, Cameron ensured the whole movie (excluding the scenes set in the present-day) had a total running time of exactly two hours and 40 minutes, the exact time it took for the real Titanic to sink. Also, first-hand accounts identify the length of the collision with the iceberg as having lasted 37 seconds, Cameron ensured his collision lasted that same length of time.
As a result of this exacting detail, the film became one of the most expensive films ever made, costing approximately U.S. $200 million, $30 million of this budget spent on sets and the creation of a 90% scale replica of the Titanic. An additional $40 million was spent on the construction of a 17-million-gallon tank in Baja, Mexico in which to film. A secondary 350,000-gallon tank was created to film the post sinking shots of frozen corpses, which were created by applying a specially designed makeup powder on the actor’s skin, which crystallized when exposed to water.
For comparison, the construction of the real Titanic, including fit out and furnishing in 1910, when adjusted for inflation, was between $120 and $150 million US dollars.
James Cameron’s Titanic came in No. 1 at the box office, earning a worldwide total of $2.19 billion, making it the most successful movie up to that time, a record broken later by Cameron’s Avatar in 2009. Titanic was nominated for a record-tying 14 Oscars, winning 11, (including three for Cameron). No awards were won in any of the acting categories.
As mentioned, aside from the many television portrayals of and referrals to the Titanic story, there have been no fewer than 17 motion pictures devoted to the subject, each one offering their own perspective and angle. These include: Saving the Titanic (2012), a 90-minute PBS docudrama telling the story of the engineers who, knowing they were going to perish, kept the Titanic’s essential electricity running during the disaster. The film was later renamed Heroes of the Titanic for broadcast in the UK. Titanic (2012), a four-part miniseries developed by the creator of the British Downton Abbey series, tells the Titanic story from three different perspectives, each one intertwining with the others. These offer viewpoints from the first-class passengers; from the steerage passengers; and from the ship’s crew throughout the boarding process, life on board and finally the sinking. Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) a documentary film directed by James Cameron, tracks and documents the various dives on the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic, between August and September 2001.
The final resting place of the Titanic was discovered in 1985 during a U.S. military mission. The ship had split in two and is gradually disintegrating at a depth of 12,415 feet (3,784 m). Thousands of artifacts have been recovered and displayed at museums around the world. Titanic remains on the seabed where she was found and has become one of the most famous ships in history. The final survivor of the sinking, Millvina Dean, who was two months old at the time, died in 2009 at the age of 97.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.