The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Titaniac: Observations about the movie about the night the great ship went down

Shoes of a Titanic passenger in the debris field, via NOAA from 2004.

During the holly daze as a present to myself I counted out sheakles and purchased the double disc DVD of James Cameron's Titanic. One of the more exciting parts of this for me was listening to commentary by two Titaniacs who were able, God love'em, to turn pro, artist Ken Marschall and writer Don Lynch.

But because I'm a nerd--who listens to the DVD commentaries anyway?--I was quite surprised that the awe-struck duo didn't--near as I can tell--breathe a syllable about the heroic departure of the ship from Southampton that in Cameron's film--and most treatments--leaves out the anxious moments during which the Titanic's massive drag yanked the moorings of the liner New York to the breaking point. Their snapping sounded to Second Class passenger and schoolteacher Lawrence Beesley almost like gunshots.

What Cameron's film portrays, thanks to CGI and James Horner's swelling and sweeping score, is a grand inauguration of the "ship of dreams." The New York near-miss would've been a speed bump in the narrative that portrays the triumphal departure of the Titanic accompanied by an escort of dolphins.

The New York incident, however, was filmed as it happened by Seattle motion picture director William H. Harbeck, more of whom anon. Lynch writes in his and Marschall's Titanic: An Illustrated History, "On a first-class section of the boat deck, William Thompson Sloper of New Britain, Connecticut, heard several people agree that the near-collision was an ominous start for the maiden voyage. By the time the Titanic was under way again and proceeding down the river, the ship was buzzing with talk of the New York incident, and what it might imply about the maneuverability of this huge new breed of ocean liners."

Yes, the sets were astonishing--I got chills when I saw the film the first time, and, well, still kind of do now. But I'm a dork who admires others even more geeky. Lynch and Marschall make intriguing points about how the recreation of the disaster in a strange way pointed to real understanding of the ship's sinking. For example, perhaps one reason the lifeboats were let down with so few people is that the crew might've observed the davits bending or wobbling in such a way that they were unnerved more than they already were--though no eyewitness testimony can validate that supposition.

Second, how in the staged foundering that provided a kind of controlled experiment for these wreck historians (and I wish one of them had said that!), the Grand Staircase became unmoored and would've broken off--which is what Lynch and other researchers surmise happened in the actual event. The structure seems to have ripped loose and floated out of the hole left after water smashed the skylight dome that crowned the stairwell.

One of the '97 film's true breathtaking delights is Cameron's exquisite evocation of bustling Southampton and the arrival of passengers and loading of baggage and freight (including William Carter's Renault--though again--whether it was the entire car or the kit for assembly isn't quite known--but without the vehicle, we don't get the um, famous hand-slapping-the-sweaty-window scene).

But I wonder about those stewards sent to find the runaway stowaway Jack and socialite-in-training Rose, whom he's kind of kidnapped. They get slammed by water and, it's supposed, killed becasue they were doing their jobs and happened to be in the way of disaster. Also, an inaccuracy in the film are the flashlight torches those guys are carrying, and, later, Fifth Officer Lowe in his lifeboat. Those devices wouldn't get invented for another seven or eight years.

A few days ago, in one of those serendipitous transits between interests and cable television's need to air anything and everything all day and night long, I came across the made-for-television Titanic.

The best special effect in the film is Catherine Zeta-Jones. (Below, with Peter Gallagher, via

The tele-film was a product of a mixed marriage; rushed into its 1996 production to catch the wave of Cameron's bigger film and based loosely on the 1979 miniseries S.O.S. Titanic (directed by Billy Hale who also lensed 1988's The Murder of Mary Phagan, here in Richmond, that used me as a rude mechanical--I met, among others, Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher--and Gallagher is in 1996 Titanic. For my money, Phagan is the best film ever made in Richmond and included a cast worth millions--not including me. )

The varied lineage of Titanic films is not the subject of this post, though the 1958 A Night To Remember remains the best filmed account of the sinking in terms of getting its facts straight and without a contrived and hackneyed shipboard Romeo and Juliet through line. Cameron's film goes to incredible lengths in providing an accurate account of how one felt to be aboard the vast vessel, yet the framing story, while enjoyable, was tried-and-true. That probably had something to do with the getting the thing produced and into theaters, too.

I give a wholehearted admission to appreciating a drenched and courageous Kate Winslet clambering hand-over-hand along pipes, with an ax, in her frantic attempt to save the life of that scofflaw Jack Dawson. Images via

He's handcuffed in the sergeant-at-arms' office by the vile Lovejoy (David Warner -- who played the much less vile and quite real school teacher Lawrence Beesley in the 1979 version).

Better than Jack deserves....

Kate, as Rose, displaying how she's strong enough to be a woman....

No, billion-eyed audience, there are far better plot devices to tell a Titanic-themed story that use the facts to the advantage and could give the audience a thrill-ride, too.

There were more than a dozen newlywed couples on the ship that night, for example. That's a holiday to remember and a life of cracks, "Yeah, for my honeymoon he took me on a shipwreck."

But two quite compelling aspects of the real Titanic story are the presence of a jeweled copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayam and 10,000 feet of exposed movie film shot by philandering freelance cinematographer William H. Harbeck whom the White Star Line seems to have hired to shoot the liner's maiden voyage.

Instead of an invented "Heart of the Ocean" diamond (a plot device perhaps appropriated from the Nazi-era propaganda film Titanic) a very real search by salvager Brock Lovett for the lost Rubáiyát would've provided a worthy MacGuffin, though the film would've had to explain why the jeweled copy of the book of sensuous poetry was important and rare.

Though not priceless even by today's standards, retrieval of the volume from the wreck would make the book worth much more to a museum or an ambitious private collector. The Titanic Rubiáyát was purchased at auction using by Philadelphia bibliophile Henry Widener, under an alias, for what would amount today as more than $2,000. Expensive and desirable, yes; priceless, no.

Still the rich metaphorical aspects of the Rubáiyát--the emphasis on live for today because the single certainty in life is death--lends itself to a story that itself has become a metaphor about arrogance and over-reliance on technology.

Or--what if somehow somebody managed to sneak off with the book, and ever since this historic Rubáiyát circulated in the antiquities black market, until someone a bit more altruistic learns of an upcoming sale and tries to interrupt the exchange and get the book into a museum or library of rare texts. Now, there's a movie for you.

The Harbeck maiden voyage movie is also intriguing. Though the chances of the metal film cannisters surviving is remote--pressure would've crushed them--what if--for the sake of a plot--they were somehow preserved in a freak air pocket. This is nitrate film, and so it wouldn't have been exposed to any heat all these years at the bottom of the cold North Atlantic. For our purposes, doesn't matter how they managed to survive, just that they did,

Recovery of any or all of these reels would constitute one of the most significant retrievals in cinema. The successful rehabilitation of Harbekc's films would exceed the excitement generated by the discovery of the Mitchell & Kenyon movies.

The plot would set up a dynamic between scholars, salvagers, lawyers and insurance agents and other unsavory underworld types and Titanic geeks. Taking the notion further, if some of the film had gotten to dry land--whether in 1912 or from the recent dives to the wreck--and was already circulating under the radar, a hunt plot is born. Our Heroine gets hired by somebody mysterious to find the cannisters and bring them, literally, to light. Then we're off to a galloping start.

By the way, for all your Titanic-related curioisities you need to drop into the Encyclopedia Titanica. The breadth and depth of this site, established in 1996, is amazing.

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