Titanic (1997)

D: James Cameron
S: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, Billy Zane

The challenge facing any film maker attempting to tell the story of The Titanic is that its enormity is not just a matter its scale or the technical resources needed to mount it, but the fact that the story itself has become the greatest folk memory of the twentieth century. Over time, there have been several attempts, and each has taken a different approach. The best is still the 1958 classic A Night to Remember, which fed on the lingering communal spirit of the Second World War and used it to subtly examine both the mechanisms of the British class system and of the human spirit. In the more selfish atmosphere of the late nineties, James Cameron made the explicit choice to centre the tragedy on a love story in order to make sure that someone cared when the ship went down.

That he lavished $200 million on it begs the question of just how big a love story can be. No one would argue that the sinking of The Titanic is difficult to stage and would be expensive in any event. But it is arguable that a stage so grand was necessary for this particular soap opera, and that the tragedy of over 1500 lives lost in peacetime and in one fell swoop (figures are still uncertain, believe it or not) could be reduced to the death of a young Hollywood pre-icon and the liberation from patriarchy of a would-be modern girl; because Titanic ultimately turns on whether or not you buy into a (fictional) frozen moment amid an event which defined our world in reality.

To be fair, Cameron is evidently well aware of the stakes here, and has been careful to try to include as many references to A Night to Remember as he can (and a couple to the 1979 TV movie S.O.S Titanic as well). He has also been obsessively careful in replicating the details of the event, and has succeeded in making the most realistic Titanic film to date. Among his excesses were securing the original carpet patterns and dyes used on the original ship and commissioning the original carpet makers to make the carpets for the film, using authentic White Star Line china patterns and, of course, building a stage ship only a hundred meters shorter than the ship itself on which to shoot the film.

But the real question is just how much you care about DiCaprio and Winslett, and the answer may be entirely personal. Certainly there are reasons enough to get involved, if you buy into the simplistic class war Cameron has started. There is not a single decent first class passenger aboard, from Billy Zane's outrageously evil patriarch to Frances Fisher's ice-cold social climber (Molly Brown, played here by Kathy Bates, has always been excepted, of course), the second class get no mention at all, and the steerage passengers are uniformly good-natured slobs with thick ethnic accents and a penchant for singing, dancing and drinking. It's the moral dictatorship of the proletariat, and one boos and hisses at the stuffy rich when they start shooting the good guys at the climax. Amid this bargain basement drama are the class-torn lovers, with defiantly poor democrat DiCaprio teaching Winslett the value of freedom and liberation from her upper class roots in tradition and empty ritual.

You buy it or you don't. I didn't. But at least there is consolation for those like me who don't, in that Cameron is as strong a technical director as he ever has been. Titanic is an impressively mounted film which not only has size and scale, but makes terrific use of its resources to deliver when it counts. Armed with more forensic knowledge than any other film maker so far and the well publicised largest budget to date in film history, Cameron has certainly made a spectacular epic from the best material there is. Once the lookouts have screamed "Iceberg right ahead", the film picks up pace. It provides many outrageously silly cliffhanger escapades for its youthful stars, but it also manages to squeeze in some of the true human dramas of The Titanic as the passengers proceed from disbelief and disavowal to screaming hysterics and violent death, all under his puppet master control.

But it does leave you with only DiCaprio and Winslett to root for, and a cynical eye can't help but notice that very few of those who fall to their deaths or freeze in the North Atlantic are singled out for individual sympathy. By literally making Winslett the last person rescued, Cameron has endlessly protracted the story of his fictional characters to span that of the real life event, and in doing so, has robbed it of its human reality in a very fundamental way.

But, in a clear attempt to preempt such criticisms, the script specifically addresses itself to these questions at several points, climaxing with modern-day salvage hunter Bill Paxton confessing tearfully that he had never understood the story until he heard it told from a human perspective. It brackets its potentially ghoulish invasion of the past with a story which questions the ethics of raiding the ship for lost treasure. It features real footage of the wreck taken by Cameron on trips to the site with specially-engineered cameras which can't but evoke some sort of chill of instinctual recognition. We were all aboard The Titanic, just like we all witnessed the birth of creation, and it pleases us to feel that Cameron acknowledges this.

But he has not successfully avoided the problem, and in telling the story of The Titanic, he has not brought it to an end. It is not the ultimate Titanic movie, but just another telling. It will endure for years more, but there will be others, and the event itself cannot (indeed will not) be proscribed. In that sense, there is no point in picking on Titanic for its limitations. Rather it is to be recommended as a well-made film which once again tries to come to terms with something which has passed beyond the realms of mere fact and into fable. That should not deny its tragedy, but it does acknowledge that it is bigger than any one person alone. The memory of The Titanic belongs to all of us, so why not share it?

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.