Titanic: Did the Maker of True Lies Tell the Truth about History?

Robert Brent Toplin, February 1998

In preparation for an appearance on the History Channel last November, I sat in the Walter Reade Theatre in New York, waiting to watch a screening of Titanic for the press and the television industry. Eager to meet some of the media personalities attending the event, I turned to the individual sitting next to me in the theater and introduced myself. The new acquaintance was a journalist for the national media, and when he learned that I was a historian, he quickly posed a question that he considered important for evaluating the motion picture. Did I think the film would communicate the latest scientific knowledge about the ship's technological flaws? He wondered if the movie would reveal that the famous sinking resulted from popping rivets rather than a giant tear in the hull's steel plates, an understanding scientists gained very recently from undersea exploration at the site of the Titanic's grave on the floor of the Atlantic.

I was struck by the irrelevance of this question. We were about to watch a dramatic portrayal of more than three hours that dealt with the famous 1912 disaster at sea. The screening would give us an opportunity to see if Hollywood had portrayed the times, the personalities, and the significance of the tragedy with a degree of sophistication. The challenge before us was to determine if the most expensive motion picture ever made ($200 million, and millions more for publicity) had successfully re-created the look and feel of the well-known event. It was disappointing, then, to see that the critic appeared ready to register thumbs up or thumbs down on the basis of a pedantic question about rivets and plates.

What can we expect from a large-scale Hollywood production designed to attract million of viewers in the United States and around the world? Certainly not an encyclopedia of detailed information. And, of course, not a comprehensive history lesson to complement lectures and readings. A movie such as Titanic is, after all, designed primarily to entertain and to make money for its investors. Furthermore, the auteur is writer-director James Cameron, who achieved fame not as a history buff but as the creator of action-adventure and sci-fi hits such as the Terminator movies, Aliens, and True Lies. Cameron has a strong reputation in Hollywood as a genius of special effects and as a man who is not afraid to spend multiple millions to create them. Can such an entertainer deliver good history?

At least Cameron deserves credit for bringing the historical epic back to Hollywood. Decades ago much of the big spending went into movies with historical themes. Films such as Gone With the Wind, Ben Hur, Dr. Zhivago, and Lawrence of Arabia presented audiences with sets and re-creations on a large scale. Then the epics lost favor. Audiences tired of costume dramas, and producers found they could more easily excite viewers with the fast-action violence of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, and Paramount, have bravely gambled millions on a story about the fate of a ship and its people in 1912. With the film's success, will proposals for historical themes once again receive a warm reception in Hollywood?

Cameron has often been called a perfectionist, and his exactitude led to many cost overruns in this mammoth film project. It is easy to see what happened to the millions. Along the coast of Baja California, his production crew assembled a 775-foot long replica of the Titanic that was 90 percent the size of the original ship. The team built the enormous set in four sections so that it could be assembled or disassembled for various scenes, with individual parts raised and lowered into the water. Cameron's production team also built a huge 17 million-gallon water tank that covered more than eight acres, which allowed cinematographers to "sink" rooms and decks to a depth of 30 feet. The production team also used smaller models of the boat for staging the disaster, and they spent a fortune on special effects that created ocean backgrounds, icebergs, and the appearance of bodies falling off the decks. For the many scenes depicting leisurely days before the encounter with an iceberg, Cameron brought in carpet woven to the designs of the original Titanic and used old photographs to build the vessel's social halls and staterooms. To give the extras an authentic appearance, he purchased 450 wigs and hundreds of hair pieces and schooled the actors in the manners and sounds of 1912 with an etiquette and dialect coach.

Many historians (myself among them) are quick to point out that it is not enough for a moviemaker to get the carpet and dialects right. Providing a sophisticated interpretation of the past is more important than rendering small details with precision. Nevertheless, some historical projects offer particularly fertile ground for instruction through the attentions of production designers and coaches. Titanic is such a case. Cameron challenges us to imagine the world of 1912 and to see its divisions through the layers of decks on the ship. He exposes us to sharp contrasts, showing the lavish appointments of the first-class public rooms, the more simple arrangements for the immigrants in steerage, and the hot and noisy environment of the firemen, who labored painfully in the ship's engine rooms. Toward the end of the movie the extraordinary sets and special effects complement each other to create a sense of the terrifying conditions in the Titanic's last two-and-a-half hours on the ocean's surface. Unlike many adventure films, in which directors gratuitously employ the bells and whistles of high technology to shock and excite, the special effects used in the ship's sinking are essential in communicating an authentic looking portrayal of the disaster.

Some reviewers have looked askance at the lengthy attention given in the movie to a fictional romance. The two leading characters are Cameron's creations. The writer-director tells the story of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor lad returning to America, who shows Rose (Kate Winslet), a young and troubled rich girl, how to smile and enjoy life. Just as the two solidify their love for each other, tragedy strikes. This tale of love on a doomed floating palace struck some reviewers as melodramatic. They argued that audiences came to theaters to see the boat and its demise; Cameron wasted too much of their time and strained dramatic license when he focused much of the film on the fictional romance between Jack and Rose.

When I heard these criticisms I thought of my conversation with the woman who sat next to me on a plane when I traveled to New York for the screening. Seeing that she was reading a novel based on the new movie Amistad, I engaged her in conversation and learned that she avidly consumed as much historical fiction as she could find time to read. She explained that she loved history but preferred to take her lessons about it in dramatic form. The woman confessed that she rarely examined nonfiction. Evidently, many Americans are like her. They base their impressions about the past on ideas gleaned from novels and movies. Through fictional characters such as Hollywood's Jack and Rose, they draw lessons about the past. Whether we like it or not, historical fiction serves as a strong stimulus for arousing their interest in history.

Cameron's decision to feature Jack and Rose can also be defended on a higher intellectual plane. The union between the two is not simply gratuitous romance; it serves an interpretive function. By examining the couple's distinct worlds, Cameron draws our attention to the subject of class. In following them through the ship, he presents a downstairs/upstairs perspective. Jack is the vehicle for introducing the life of the humble passengers, especially the immigrants with their diverse representation of cultures from the British Isles, Scandinavia, Italy, and other regions. Through Rose we view the world of John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, and Isidor Straus (of the Macy's department store fortune) as well as the life of America's nouveau riche, exemplified by Mrs. Brown (the "Unsinkable Mollie").

Cameron builds on this contrast at the end of the movie, raising significant questions for audiences to ponder. Why did a much higher percentage of first-class passengers escape on lifeboats than passengers from steerage? Did economic and cultural prejudice affect life-and-death decisions in the moment of crisis? The statistical evidence, which the movie cannot convey, is certainly disturbing. Sixty percent of the first-class passengers escaped on lifeboats, while only 25 percent of steerage passengers did. The evidence is more dramatic for women. Virtually all of the first-class women who wanted to enter the lifeboats did; 94 percent of them escaped. Even though a call went out to seat "women and children first," only 31 percent of third-class women escaped on the boats. Why the difference? Because, as the movie suggests, crewmen restrained steerage-class passengers from leaving their quarters during the first 90 minutes of the crisis when the lifeboats were filling? Because third-class passengers, who slept in the lower decks of the stern, were far removed from information about the crisis? Because many poor immigrants insisted on carrying their life possessions with them, an understandable effort that, nevertheless, slowed their progress? Because the number of passengers in third class was more than double the number in first class? We are not certain of the answer, but Cameron has made a contribution to our thinking by elevating the issue of class to a prominent place in his film's message about the disaster. He gives the issue much more attention than the authors of major books on the Titanic (many of whom seem preoccupied with stories about the behavior of the rich and famous onboard the ship). Cameron makes the class question even more central than it was in the respected 1958 movie classic on the event, A Night to Remember.

We can only speculate about the sources of this concern. Some attribute the movie's sympathy for the poor to the writer-director's personal experiences. Before Cameron struck gold as a filmmaker, he had completed only two years of college and worked for a period as a truck driver. He is familiar with want and struggle. Others connect the theme to Hollywood's formulaic approach to telling stories. American motion pictures often show common people outwitting the rich and powerful. Audiences, which, after all, are mostly made up of "little" people, enjoy watching these victories. Certainly Titanic offers its share of stereotypes: the movie frequently contrasts sniveling and vacuous millionaires with wholesome and kindly commoners. The portrayals appear to support the thesis of a provocative new book about Hollywood's creative artists. In Hollywood's America: Social and Political Themes in Motion Pictures (1996), Stephen Powers, David J. Rothman, and Stanley Rothman argue that today's filmmakers present pictures of society with much more of a leftist slant than film theorists have realized. Hollywood's portrayals of the rich, they note, have frequently been critical in recent years.

Despite the movie's abundant attention to the romance between Jack and Rose, it manages to slip in most of the important explanations for the Titanic's shocking demise. The scenes reveal that radio operators received several reports of icebergs ahead, but the captain and the director of the White Star Line ignored them. The Titanic reached the highest speed of its journey as it approached the danger zone (22 knots) and the men posted as lookouts in the crow's nest lacked binoculars. The ship should have been equipped with 64 lifeboats, but the White Star Line had shaved the number down to 16 to provide ample deck space for promenading guests (rules at the time did not require a full complement of lifeboats). After the rendezvous with an iceberg, the ship remained afloat only a few hours. During that brief period, the captain failed to quickly sound a general alarm, and many crewmen were ill-prepared to handle the evacuation once it got under way. Some of the lifeboats left the ship only half full. When the Americans and the British learned about the numerous fatal errors associated with the tragedy, they screamed for reforms. Dramatic changes in regulations followed. New rules required a 24-hour radio watch, adequate boats for all travelers, and evacuation drills. Sea travel became much safer in subsequent decades.

Shortly before release of the movie in December, the Discovery Channel featured a lengthy examination of scientific evidence about the Titanic disaster obtained from undersea dives. Like the journalist who sat next to me at the screening, the producers of Discovery's program focused on mechanics. Basing their conclusions on sonar tests made at the underwater site, they suggested that a tiny tear in the ship rather than a large gash sent water gushing into six bulkheads at the bow. The producers also suggested the Titanic's steel skin contained impurities, a problem that compromised its structural integrity in a moment of crisis. This evidence showed why the Titanic slipped so quickly into the ocean. The Discovery Channel's speculation was very interesting, but it did not provide insights superior to the movie's.

The fact remains that any passenger ship, even a technologically sophisticated one of the 1990s, could encounter great difficulty if it slammed its starboard side into an iceberg at 22 knots as the Titanic did. Cameron's Titanic, with its attention to the numerous human failures before and after the crash, delivers the essential explanation of why the ship lost more than 1,500 people of the 2,223 on board.

In presenting a broadly positive assessment of the film I do not mean to suggest that Titanic is without flaws or that it should be shielded from criticism. The movie does not get every detail right (the crash occurred on a Sunday night, for example, a time of less merrymaking and drinking than the movie suggests), and the film leaves out important elements of the Titanic story (for example, the second-class passengers are largely invisible in the story, and no attention is given to the important controversy about the Californian, a ship located only a few miles from the Titanic that failed to respond to distress signals sent by wireless and rockets). But do such criticisms amount to much?

A far more important conclusion, it seems, is that James Cameron's Titanic has brought back the great Hollywood historical epic in grand style. As in the Margaret Mitchell/David O. Selznick classic, Gone With the Wind, Cameron built his story around fictitious characters, yet his pictorial and verbal interpretation of shipboard life in first class and steerage is less grounded in myth than Gone With the Wind's more unidimensional portrayal of big plantation society in the Old South. Furthermore, Titanic nicely delivers the kind of sensual experience that exemplifies Hollywood's particular contribution to historical appreciation. When screen-based historical fiction is good, it powerfully combines fact and fiction to establish a strong feeling for a distant place and time. An effective historical drama leaves audiences with a sense that they were briefly witnesses to the past and experienced its emotions. The Return of Martin Guerre achieved that feeling. So did The Killing Fields, Glory, and Schindler's List. Viewers who walked away from theaters with strong memories of an eerie night of chaos on a doomed ship will want to add Titanic to that impressive list.

—Robert Brent Toplin is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He is the author of History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (1996).