Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Titanic (1998)

Starring Leonardi diCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Bernard Hill

Titanic proved, in box office terms at least, to be the film of 1998, and made stars of its two hitherto virtually unknown leads, diCaprio and Winslet. Not bad for a film whose end, at least, you could have had a reasonably good guess of (ie ship sinks, most on board drown).

The plot

Actually the story is a little more subtle, and starts off in the present day with attempts by salvage expert Brock Lovett (Bill Paxman, good as ever) to find a fabulous diamond, "La coeur de la mer", believed to have been lost on board the Titanic. We get fabulous shots (taken in real life) of the sunken wreck of the majestic liner, interspersed with the cynicism of the salvage crew. The salvagers hit a problem, however, when the safe from the presumed owner's room is winched onto the salvage ship, only to be found to be empty of anything of value. Subsequently they encounter an elderly American lady, Rose, whom they have transported from her home to the ship out in the Atlantic to tell them what she knows about the disappearance of the diamond. From then on the story is hers.

In April 1912 the SS Titanic is in Southampton, ready to depart on her maiden voyage to New York. Rose, here a young woman of the family deWitt Bukater (played well by Winslet), is embarking with her mother and her wealthy fiancé, Cal Hockley, a man whom she secretly dislikes and who is taking her away to what she feels to be a life of gilded serfdom in the high society of the eastern United States. Meanwhile two young drifters, the Italian Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) and the American Jack Dawson (diCaprio), win a hand of cards in a Southampton pub and as part of the pot pick up two tickets for the Titanic's voyage. They just make it on board for the departure, where they take up their quarters in steerage (third class).

Shortly into the voyage, Rose becomes so unhappy that one night she rushes to the stern and climbs over the rail, contemplating throwing herself into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Jack, who happens to be there, talks her out of it and drags her back on deck, only to narrowly avoid being arrested under suspicion of molesting Rose. However, Rose talks Cal into inviting Jack to dine with them the following night, and with help from Margaret "The Unsinkable Molly" Brown (fine performance), Jack gives a good account of himself at the dinner. By now it becomes clear that Rose's affections (never very warm towards Cal in the first place) are switching to Jack, and the following day she resolves to follow him when they land at New York and to leave her old life behind.

That night the ship strikes the iceberg, despite frantic evasive action by First Officer Murdoch, and takes in water into five of her watertight compartments. This, as the ship's designer Andrews realises, spells doom to the liner, since she will slowly fill with water until the flooding causes her to sink bow first. (I don't think I'm giving too much away here, as all this is well-documented history!). The news is concealed from the passengers and crew at first, and most of those on board treat the call to the lifeboats as something of a nuisance. Andrews however does warn Rose and Jack, who are fully aware of the horror of the situation. Both Cal and Jack put Rose on a boat, but she suddenly climbs back on the boat, refusing to leave Jack. I won't give too much away here, but the final half hour of the film is filled with heroism and tragedy as the two lovers seek to escape the doomed liner against a backdrop of valour, folly and distress.

The film

Overall this was an engrossing film as one might expect from legendary director James Cameron. Although Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslett perform well in their roles, the real interest in the film for many will be the life and death of Titanic herself, together with the fate of her passengers who formed aboard that ship a microcosm of Western society (particularly Britain and the US) in the early twentieth century. Some have implied that Cameron plays on late twentieth-century egalitarian prejudices, which may be true to a degree, although it should be noted that unusually for a Hollywood production the 'villain', if that is the right word for Cal Hockley (well played and not too over-the-top by Billy Zane), is American and not English. I admit I was guilty of thinking that Cameron would play the upper-class-bashing card before I saw the film, but in fact he is more subtle than that. While some of the upper classes on board the Titanic are shown as fools or egocentrics, others of the same class are also shown as brave or generous people. (A notable example is Benjamin Guggenheim, who emerges in dinner tails and jacket, complete with top hat, and announces that he is ready to go down like a gentleman). Even Rose's cold and unsympathetic mother, a woman seemingly distant and hidebound by the protocol of her day, is revealed to be a woman one step away from social ruin and poverty, for whom her daughter's marriage to a wealthy heir is her only hope. Someone tartly objected in the Daily Telegraph that anyone who spent £200 million on a film had no right to go carping on about excesses of money, but I think this was a flimsy and over-sensitive comment: much of that sum, in any case, must have gone on the real-life dives to the wreck and of course the superb special effects that really do give the impression of a film shot at sea.

Titanic also benefits, of course, from a superb cast. Apart from diCaprio and Winslett, fine performances are turned in by the versatile Bernard Hill, as Captain Smith who in the last hour is increasingly haunted by the horror of losing so many lives: veteran Brit David Warner as Hockley's saturnine and unscrupulous bodyguard Spicer Lovejoy:. Victor Gucci as Andrews, the conscientous naval architect who decides he must perish with his design: Jonathon Hyde, as the fleeing owner subsequently tormented by the guilt of his survival: and Frances Fisher, as the mother torn between love for her daughter and the necessities of social conformity. In fact I can't think of a duff performance in the entire film: the actors playing Murdoch, Second Officer Lightoller and Fifth Officer Lowe, and others of the ship's crew, were also fine.

So what's true and what isn't?

Inevitably there have been calls and accusations about the historical reliability of the film. I was unsure about this myself, so I did a bit of reading to investigate the veracity of Titanic. Expecting a lot of sensationalism, I was in fact quite impressed about how closely the script and screenplay follow the events as reported by the survivors. For those of you who are interested, here are a list of the True And False:


For some True and False Goofs in Titanic, please also check the site Titanic Goofs.


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