Titanic – 1997
Titanic was a movie that was… dare I say it… titanic. It was monstrous in its scale and gargantuan in its financial success. It swept the Oscars and won 11 out of the 14 awards for which it was nominated. It was the highest grossing film of all time for twelve years after its initial release, eventually being surpassed by Avatar. Both films were directed by James Cameron who has a history of making other hugely successful movies such as The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss.
I have to start off by dispelling a misconception about the film. At least it was my misconception. Even though I really like the movie and have seen it multiple times, when looking at it with a critical eye, I found that the movie is not about the sinking of the Titanic. The movie is, first and foremost, a romance story. It is set against the backdrop of the famous tragedy, but the romance story never goes away.
It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, with supporting roles by Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton, David Warner and Victor Garber. Many of the characters in the movie were completely fictional, though there were just as many characters who were based on real people. Cameron took on a monumental task, doing extensive research, even becoming obsessed with paying as much attention to detail as possible in the making of Titanic. The historical characters were treated with as much accuracy as possible while still remaining true to the fictional story being told. The sets and costumes were as authentic as could be done. Many of the original blueprints and design documents were retrieved from the archives of the White Star Line company in order to recreate as many of the specific details of the actual ship correctly.
Now, the romance story, as romance stories go, is somewhat predictable and sappy. And I’ll be honest, it isn’t why I enjoy the movie as much as I do. I mean, really, I like watching the visual effects and realism of the sinking of the ship. It was incredibly well done. It was enormous and complex. A mixture of real sets and special effects, live actors and CGI images combined to make a startling and amazing spectacle of the horrific event. Though there have actually been 4 movies and several TV miniseries made about the sinking of the Titanic, Cameron was the only one with the budget to really do the cataclysm and enormity of the event justice. The movie is worth seeing just to witness the scale of Cameron’s version of the tragedy.
But the Titanic doesn’t even hit the iceberg until an hour and forty minutes into the movie. The film is 3 hours and 14 minutes long, so at least half the film is dedicated to the romance before the real reason why we have all come to see the movie begins. Then I would venture to say that at least another thirty minutes are devoted to the continuation of the romance between the two lovers as the ship sinks and they struggle to survive. Then about an hour is given to the crew and passengers as they to their best to live through the horrific event.
Interesting note: In the movie, exactly 37 seconds pass between the lookouts warning and the actual collision with the iceberg – the exact same amount of time it took in real life. But Cameron even went farther than that. If you remove all the scenes in the film that take place in the present day (we’ll get to that in a bit) and the opening credits, the running time of the film is exactly 2 hours and 40 minutes – the exact time it took for the Titanic to sink.
And when it comes to that, Cameron really did a great job in the pacing of the tragedy. At first everyone is calm and dismissive about it all because none of the passengers really knew what was going on. But as the front of the ship starts going under the water and as more and more decks begin to flood, the mounting chaos and panic amongst both the passengers and the crew becomes intense. The climactic scene when the stern finally goes down is incredibly well shot and is amazing to watch.
But back to the romance. DiCaprio and Winslet had a pretty good chemistry with each other. Their passion seemed unfeigned and unafraid. DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson, a penniless, homeless artist who has won his ticket on the Titanic in a game of poker. This is a very telling plot point, emphasizing that he is the kind of man who lives his life riding the winds of chance and going wherever he is blown. The point is made that he lives his life playing whatever hand he is dealt and makes every moment count.
On the flip side, Winslet plays Rose DeWitt Bukater, a 17 year old girl who has been born into high society with all the social demands of a young girl of the early 1900s that go along with it hovering over her head. She is being forced into marriage with a rich but abusive man whom she does not love. She feels trapped with her own life and longs for freedom and adventure.
The two actors did a good job. As a viewer, you end up feeling for them both in their whirlwind relationship. You want them to end up together. They are true star-crossed lovers just like Romeo and Juliet, and their affair is just as brief and tragic. DiCaprio was 22 years old when Titanic was filmed, but he has a very young look about him and could have passed for 18. His skills as an actor had already been proven. He is one of those rare people who have successfully made the transition from child actor to adult actor. Winslet also played her part very well. This was the first film in which I remember seeing her, and I have always been impressed by her performance.
The rest of the cast, who are really too numerous to mention, did a great job as well. I had no problem with any of the acting in the film. However, I have to give a few honorable mentions. Billy Zane was wonderful in his portrayal of Caledon Hockley, the rich man whom Rose is supposed to marry. Zane was incredibly attractive and yet such an ass that you just wanted him to die with everyone else. But he was so conniving and self-serving that he was able to survive on one of the lifeboats. Fortunately, we learn that eventually his character lost all his money and committed suicide. Yay! Another honorable mention is Frances Fisher, Rose’s mother. She always had a calm and practiced exterior and yet you could just see the cold-hearted and venomous woman that resided beneath the surface. Fisher did a great job.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention Gloria Stewart. She played the part of Rose DeWitt Bukater – as a 100 year old woman. That brings me around to the beginning and end of the film. The beginning really starts out as treasure hunter Brock Lovett, played by Bill Paxton, is searching the wreckage of the Titanic in search of a lost diamond that is worth more than the Hope Diamond. He locates Cal’s safe and brings it to the surface. He hopes to find the diamond called the Heart of the Ocean within, but instead finds a drawing of a naked woman wearing the jewel, dated the day the Titanic sank. After recognizing the woman in the recovered portrait on the news as herself, the old Rose travels to the research & recovery vessel to meet with Lovett. There, she tells her story, so really the main body of the film is a flashback which is narrated by Stewart. She does an incredible job narrating. Her voice sounds like the female version of Morgan Freeman: kindly, insightful and pleasant to listen to.
Now the ending of the movie is an interesting one. Once the Titanic has gone down, Jack dies, Rose is rescued and the flashback ends. The old Rose finishes her story and Lovett feels shame for his treasure-hunting, saying that he never let any of the reality of the tragedy in and that he never really understood that he was trying to benefit from ruined lives of others. Then we cut to a short scene in which it is revealed that the Old Rose has had the sought after treasure all along. She quietly makes her way to the back of the ship and with a smile on her face, she tosses the priceless diamond into the ocean where it is lost forever.
At that point, I can’t help but look at it through my own eyes – the eyes of a man who would never throw away that kind of financial security. I want to jump into the screen and throw her overboard as well! I mean, returning the Heart of the Ocean to where it “belongs”, being noble and embracing the idea that life and freedom are more important than money, is great as a concept. But come on! We live in the real world! She could have made sure that her descendants for generations would have been securely wealthy. But instead she casually throws it away, making the point that she was able to survive and thrive without Cal’s lingering influence on her life.
But at least that was better than the alternate ending that was included on the DVD. In the alternate ending, Rose’s granddaughter sees her at the back of the boat and is afraid she is trying to jump overboard to join the ghosts of her past. She and Lovett run to her but she makes them come no closer. She then reveals that she has the Diamond. Lovett’s eyes light up as he realizes that she has had the jewel all along. He pleads with her not to toss it into the sea, but she quietly convinces him that it is the right thing to do. He asks to hold it in his hand just once before it is tossed overboard. Rose allows him to hold it briefly before she flings it into the ocean. And he allows it, realizing that she is right: Life and freedom are more important than money. While that is fundamentally true, they could have had all three.
So all that being said, when I finished watching the movie I made note of several questions I had and inconsistencies in the film. Some of these questions were answered when I watched the deleted scenes and some were not.
First, the one that gets me every time I watch the movie is Lovejoy’s Head wound. Lovejoy is Cal’s manservant, played by David Warner. As the Titanic is going down, he remains relatively unscathed until his death scene, at which point he is inexplicably shown with a bleeding head wound. A deleted scene shows him in a fight with Jack where he is pitched into a glass window pane. Another scene shows a shelf full of dinner china falling off a shelf and crashing onto the floor. However, the part of the ship that is still above water is at a 45 degree angle. Those plates would have crashed to the floor a lot sooner. And I have always wondered why none of the people floundering in the water after the Titanic was gone did not start swimming toward the rescue boats. I still don’t know about that one.
If the entire story was supposed to be told as Rose’s flashback, how is it that nobody figured out that Rose had the diamond? That might be explained by saying that Rose was not present when the diamond was put into the pocket of the coat she was given, but Cameron maintained the flow of the plot by showing the audience anyway. And finally, if Rose became an actress after surviving the sinking of the Titanic, wouldn’t her mother or Cal, who had also survived, recognize her or see her image at some point?
Titanic was certainly an entertaining film. The sheer scale of the movie and the production values were incredible, even overwhelming. The music was alright, though in my opinion, nothing terribly special. It seemed to me that there was too much of a synth sound to some parts of the score.
Interesting note: It is rumored that when Celine Dion came to the recording studio to record the movie’s hit song, My Heart Will Go On, she did one take and proclaimed, “That was perfect. I do not need to record it again,” and the walked out of the studio. But if you really listen to her performance, you hear sing, at one point, “My heart will go OND and on.” Sorry, Celine – OND is not a word.
But the costumes and sets couldn’t have been any better. And the last hour of the movie was spectacular, and I might even say frightening to see. At the very least it was very intense. Of course Titanic won the Best Picture award. How could it not? It had everything a Best Picture winner should have. It had big stars, big sets, big epic plot and big production values. I think this one was a bit of a shoe-in.
Interesting note: This was the year in which Cameron, who also won the award for Best Director, asked for a moment of silence for the 1,500 people who died in the terrible tragedy. So, live on national television, an extremely long and awkward moment of silence was observed.