By John H. Foote
It was a tale often seen in movies, a love story set against the backdrop of a tragic historical event. Two studios would produce the film, as the budget soared to two hundred and sixty million dollars. To break even, Titanic would have to become the highest grossing film of all time, a staggering amount of pressure to place on the film’s director and producers. Highest grossing film of all time.
And it did.
Week after week it held onto a spot on the top grossing weekend films finally unseating Jurassic Park (1993) as the top money-making film in movie history. No one saw it coming, no one expected this level of success.
Time has been very kind to James Cameron’s epic, Academy Award winning Titanic. At the time of its release it was not critically hailed a masterpiece, nor thought to be a film for the ages. The script was weak, but so much else about the film was spot on and the brilliant actors connected with audiences giving the film a great, humbling humanity. I was among the critics who panned Titanic when it was first released and though I stand by the fact it was certainly not the year’s best film, it has held up shockingly well as a film. Nominated for a record tying 14 Academy Awards, it sailed its way to tying Ben-Hur (1959) winning 11, including Best Picture and Best Director. Fans railed against the Academy when leading man Leonardo Di Caprio was not nominated as Best Actor, but those same fans failed to see it was a very strong year for Best Actor.
Watching the film last night, I was struck with how much I cared for the characters despite the weak, sometimes laughable dialogue.
Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio had good old-fashioned sexual heat in the film, chemistry to burn. Both very young, their talented unquestioned, she was Rose, the society girl being forced into a marriage to a lout, a spoiled, entitled man-child, Cal, who thinks money answers every issue. On the ship, having won tickets in a card game, Jack rescues Rose after she slips off the edge of the ship. They become friends, she is enamoured with his carefree attitude in taking each day as they come without a dime in his pocket, and in a few hours together they are in love. It happens, soulmates connect so quickly because they just know.
Hiding from Cal, they make their way to the storage area and make love in the backseat of a car. While they are involved, the Titanic scrapes alongside an iceberg, tearing open the ship below the passenger decks. Torn beyond repair, the Captain and engineers realize the great ship is going to sink, quickly and thousands will perish.
Watching the young lovers every move has been Cal or his man, the vile bodyguard portrayed by David Warner who sets Jack up as a thief. Imprisoned as water fills the ship Jack believes Rose has abandoned him and he will die. But she comes for him and breaks the chains holding him. She believes he did not steal the diamond necklace, she now knows he was set up.
Cameron had the genius to film the sinking in real time, giving the film an urgency the film might not have had otherwise. We watch in horror as water explodes into areas of the ship, drowning all in sight, as the passengers in steerage tuck their children into bed, preparing for death, the wealthy men sitting with their brandy and cigars preparing to die, knowing death is seconds away.
Yet the most haunting sequences in the film are the ghostly sequences that take place aboard the ruined, sunken ship, becoming new again as the camera glides through, the years melting away what the sea has destroyed through time. Seeing Titanic on the ocean floor, no longer the majestic wonder it was, now a graveyard for those who died aboard the ship. Bent, broken, cracked, it is shocking to see the ship for the first time, as though it was something intensely private, forbidden if you will, the burial ground disturbed years after. Scattered on the floor of the ocean are relics of the past, a doll’s face, a shoe, all forever entombed by the mighty sea.
Setting off Titanic was filled with smiling faces, headed to North America when just a few days later, it famously hit an iceberg, dooming the passengers and mighty ship. Made of iron, fast filling with water, the unsinkable was going down, very quickly.
Cameron’s recreation of the sinking of Titanic is where the film is at it most powerful and heartbreaking. Water becomes an unstoppable force, courage is for the few, survival becomes everything. Lifeboats were dropped half full, as children and women were loaded first. Some men went as well, some for the right reason, some cowards afraid to die, eased down to the ocean to watch from a distance as the ship sank. Screams could be heard, merged with music as a band played on the deck until they no longer could. Finally, the great ship breaks in half, held together by steel, the bottom half fills with water, pulling the other half down with it.
Spectacular to see on film, Cameron captures the humanity of the story with tableaux moments and his haunting, stunning score, one of the finest I have ever experienced.
One shot stays with me, an aerial shot of the ship sinking bit by bit, a flare fired into the starry night, the ship alone, the passengers along in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. No one even knew they were there. The shot is as though God was watching this nightmare unfold and does nothing.
Once the ship is gone, Rose finds a headboard to crawl onto. Jack tries but risks tipping his love into the sea. He will freeze to death in the frigid waters, but Rose refuses to let him die. Everything they talked about doing she did as though she lived her life with him beside her. Over one hundred years old, Rose is aboard a salvage science ship offering advice to a team of scientists studying Titanic. But she knows what they seek.
Late at night the fragile Rose makes her way to the back end of the ship and in her hands is the diamond necklace Cal had given her, the one Jack was accused of stealing, called the Heart of the Ocean. Standing on the rail, Rose drops the priceless gem into the sea where it sinks to join Titanic on the ocean floor. Rose goes back to her room, where surrounded by photos of her life, she gently dies, forever joining Jack in the Grand Ballroom of Titanic, where her young man waits for her as the passengers of the ship applaud them.
Did Titanic deserve 11 Academy Awards? No of course not. LA Confidential (1997) was a vastly superior film, but Titanic offered Hollywood the chance to celebrate a big expensive epic as opposed to the independent cinema that had dominated the awards the previous year. The film deserved its awards for Cinematography, Sound, Production Design, Costumes, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Song, and best of all score. But Best Film and Director? Nope.
Still a powerful, deeply moving film, elevated by actors who give themselves to the roles in every way possible. Their gifts brought to the film the humanity it so needed.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”