Jul 5, 2008

Reel history: Titanic

In the first of a new series, Alex von Tunzelmann watches classics of big screen history and prises fact from fiction.

One April night in 1912, the biggest, newest and most famous passenger ship in the world collided with an iceberg. In less time than it takes to watch James Cameron's film, the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic provided one of history's clearest examples of pride coming before a fall.

The film, meanwhile, is an example of pride coming before an obscenely enormous success. Cameron's production reportedly went $65m over budget. Before its release, the sinking of Titanic was widely predicted. Instead, it went on to become the highest-grossing film of all time, and won 11 Oscars

Location: Costumes and sets have been meticulously researched, and some shots were filmed on the real wreck. Admittedly, if you look at the imdb.com goofs page, you will find pedants complaining about the colour of the wicker furniture, and some inaccurately positioned door handles. If you're the sort of person whose day is ruined when you spot that "The button on the left side of Jack's borrowed jacket is a Kingsdrew button, first made in 1922", it's never too late to seek professional help. If you're not, the ship is entirely convincing.

People: Less convincing. Several are based on real people, though the leads, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), are fictional. Rose is realistic enough: a well-bred but destitute young lady, about to be married off to a suave cad with cash pouring out of his trousers. Jack is less believable as a Wisconsin urchin who has somehow ended up as a jobbing fine artist ("Monet!" he gasps, waving his hands at Rose's art collection. "Look at his use of colour here! Isn't he great?").

Sex: Jack tells Rose he trained by sketching women in the brothels of Paris. Amazingly, she accepts this excuse for being in the brothels of Paris, and even proceeds to have sex with him on the cargo deck. Luckily for her, the first antibiotic treatment for syphilis was marketed in 1910. Perhaps Jack was inspired by the painting hanging in Rose's cabin: Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, a portrait of five prostitutes. (For anyone upset by anachronistic jacket buttons: that painting was definitely not on the Titanic. It can still be seen in New York.)

Society: Credibility is stretched even further by the depiction of life in first class as boring and miserable, while the happy proletarians down in third are having a knees-up. In reality, throughout most of history, it has been much nicer being rich than being poor. Moreover, White Star segregated single male and female passengers in most third class areas, limiting the scope for onboard jollies.

Mortality: There is some debate over whether the third class passengers were really locked in their quarters to facilitate the escape of the aristos up top. But the survival rates of passengers by class are striking: while over 60% of first and 40% of second got off the ship, only 25% of third did.

Technology: "I did the sum in my head," says Rose, long before any icebergs heave into view, "and with the number of lifeboats times the capacity ... it seems there are not enough for everyone aboard." Meanwhile, crew members comment on the inadequacy of the rudder to provide a proper turning circle. They might have added that buying cheap rivets turned out to be a bit of a false economy.

Verdict: Despite the film's heavy veneer of schmaltz, Cameron does a pretty decent job at recreating the historical story of the Titanic: enough to earn him a respectable B- grade and rescue him from steerage class. King of the world, though? Not quite.

Source: The Guardian

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