Tuesday, April 14, 2009

History and the Movies: Titanic

On this night, April 14th, 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg in the chilled waters of the North Atlantic and slipped under the waves in the early morning hours of the 15th shortly after. The Titanic disaster has been written about and turned into dramatic movie fare so often that its fact has blended with fiction and new writers and filmmakers are consistently looking for a new angle, a new approach. After the last big movie, Titanic (1997, d. James Cameron) no one wants to make another given the overwhelming success of that production: billions in box office worldwide - yes, billions - eleven Oscars, good critical reception (even if some critics deny it now) and even a few top ten lists. Money, Critical Reception and Awards: It's the sacred triumvirate of movie success that Hollywood producers dream of but rarely achieve. Once achieved it's hard to bounce back from. It's taken Cameron 12 years to finally direct another non-documentary movie (Avatar, December 2009).

The Titanic has also been used as a backdrop in otherwise engaged dramas such as Cavalcade (1933, d. Frank Lloyd), as a punchline in Time Bandits (1981, d. Terry Gilliam) and even as the basis for a computer adventure time-travel game, Titanic: Adventure out of Time (1995).

To some extent I've liked all of the Titanic movies I've seen because the event itself looms so large in my mind that any dramatic recreation of it will hold my attention. In the end however, looking back as objectively as I can, it is the movie-making world's distrust of history and disrespect for the intelligence of its audience that eventually takes me out of most Titanic movies, save one.

Allow me to explain by taking a short digression to an American Experience episode on Annie Oakley that I recently watched. It didn't take long to realize that Annie Oakley had a pretty damned interesting, and at times, fascinating life. And every single movie made about her had utterly destroyed the facts in favor of Hollywood make-believe. It was maddening to watch this documentary and think how pathetic in comparison were the stories of Annie Oakley (1935, d. George Stevens) or Annie Get Your Gun (1950, d. George Sidney) to Annie's real life. Why Hollywood believes their unimaginative, mediocre story inventions trump that of reality I'll never know. They claim it is for audience appeal and I'm sure to some extent they are right.   Certainly the story of Jack and Rose aboard the Titanic helped that film's fortunes greatly.

For myself though, that's precisely the problem. When it comes to the story of the Titanic, history trumps fiction every time. I know many people are fans of Cameron's Titanic, from critics I respect to bloggers I know and love, and I am not here to bash the film. In fact, I think Cameron did a superb job of directing the chaos of that tragic night and handled the epic length of the film quite admirably. It maintains a steady but quick pace throughout. But I don't care about Jack and Rose.  For that matter, I don't care about Julia and Richard Sturges in the 1953 Titanic (d. Jean Negulesco) either, or any of the other fictional character I've seen in theatrical or made for television versions. And it goes beyond that: I get a little annoyed by their very existence. I find the real story so compelling that fictional creations in lieu of the real people seems insulting to me. Why hasn't anyone ever focused on the Strausses in a movie? A couple so deeply in love they died together rather than have one die while the other lived alone. They get a shot or two in most of the movies but that's it. I guess they're not young enough to hold anyone's interest.

Of course there is one movie that does deal with history, the one so many hold up as the best of the Titanic films and for good reason: Because it is. I refer to A Night To Remember (1958, d. Roy Ward Baker), a film that eschews fictional characters in favor of the officers aboard the Titanic facing and dealing with the disaster thrust upon them on that fateful night. The main character is Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller played by Kenneth More. For this viewer the movie is gripping in part because the historical figures aboard the real Titanic become the characters we follow in the movie. Lightoller has not one doomed romance while aboard the ship on its maiden voyage and yet somehow is still interesting. He does not have a single custody battle with his ex-wife and yet doesn't bore the viewer to sleep. Amazing. Who would've thought soap opera storylines would be unnecessary when dealing with a story about a massive steamliner dragging over 1500 people to their deaths? I'll still watch those other Titanic movies if I happen across them, so fascinated am I by the story of that ship, but A Night To Remember is the only one I can honestly recommend and feel good about. The rest are inventions with an interesting backdrop, a historical event used to prop up make-believe drama, an event that occurred 97 years ago tonight and will reach the century mark in just three more. Will there be a new movie in 2012 to mark the occasion? Perhaps. Will it be the best yet made? It's possible. For now though, the best yet made is the one whose title also perfectly evokes the reflection upon that quiet moonless night when over 1500 people met their deaths and 706 escaped from a night that no one would soon forget, A Night to Remember.
Links and resources:
Open Directory on Titanic - Amazing and extremely thorough online compilation of multiple resources of Titanic information, for just about any topic on the Titanic one is interested in.
Library of Congress Online, where the photos for this post were retrieved. Not all photos at the site are available for reuse so check the copyright information. The ones posted here are in the public domain.