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James Cameron's epic may well become the most successful movie of all time. Why are so many people responding to a film about a nautical disaster 87 years ago? It may be that both the event and its retelling on the big screen have lessons for all of us...

by Conrad Goeringer
Feb 10, 2020

TITANIC sailed into movie theaters barely three months ago, and as of this writing, is well on its way to becoming the biggest box-office success in history. That is sweet vengeance, and satisfaction for director-writer James Cameron, who postponed release of the 195-minute epic and sacrificed his own fees when production costs soared over the $200 million mark. Cameron is no stranger to megabuck films, but his past work — Aliens, The Abyss, True Lives, Terminator — were action genre, not the patiently crafted romance which characterizes TITANIC.

Why has TITANIC become such a sensation? "TITANIC," a 1953 Oscar winner starred Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Thelma Ritter and a young Robert Wagner, and was a box office successes. Five years later, England's J. Arthur Rank group produced "A Night To Remember," which some have considered the best of the attempts to capture on film the events of April 14, 2020. But Cameron's vision was breathtaking in its scope, and necessitated two studios — Paramount and 20th Century Fox — pooling their resources and devoting a full year to the production of this new TITANIC.

The result is a film which works almost seamlessly on every level from the special effects, all used judiciously, to the script carefully constructed by Cameron blending equal amounts of historical accuracy with literary license. Titanic survivor Gloria Stuart, a performance played artfully by Kate Winslet, meets up with a diving expedition headed by Bill Paxton (Independence Day); she relates her memories about the maiden voyage of Titanic when as a 17-year old girl she was being brought home to Philadelphia for a arranged marriage to the rich and arrogant Cal Hockley (Billy Zane)...

"I saw my whole life as if I'd already lived it... and endless parade of parties and cotillions, yachts and polo matches, always the same narrow people, the same mindless chatter. I felt like I was standing at a great precipice, with no one to pull me back, no one who cared... or even noticed."

— Rose DeWitt Bukater as played by Kate Winslet

But who is this 101-year old woman who claims to Paxton and his nautical treasure hunting expedition that she survived the Titanic sinking? She is really Rose DeWitt Bukater, thought to have been among those lost on that fateful night in 1912. Suffering from the prospect of marrying the arrogant Zane, she contemplates suicide at the stern of the Titanic, only to meet Jack Dawson, a role stunningly executed by Leonardo DiCaprio. The two fall in love, and Rose — bucking the disapproval of her stern mother who sees her planned marriage as the only key to maintaining a respectable, upper-class appearance — struggles with her blossoming affection for Dawson. All the while, there are the sub-plots and characters winding their way through Cameron's script. These include vignettes with the "Unsinkable Molly Brown," (a fascinating character in her own right as a real-life rebel), the fabulously wealthy John Jacob Astor, and Titanic's Captain, J.P. Smith.

Everyone watching TITANIC knows of the certain outcome. It is all here, in this film: the metaphor of Titanic as both a splendrous achievement of the industrial age, and an overblown statement of presumptive arrogance; a microcosm for the class hierarchies and strictures of that Gilded Age; the unavoidable physics and confluence of seemingly disconnected events that condemned Titanic and over 1500 of its passengers to death in the middle of the dark north Atlantic. But Cameron gives us more, a love story that if we step back nearly nine-decades, suggests that just as the sinking of Titanic was a landmark historical event, so the change in Rose DeWitt Bukater symbolized the wider developments sweeping the world at that time. Rose and Jack are there, where they met, on the stern of the giant ship as it rises out of the water and breaks in two — a nod to the recent findings of underwater expeditions to the Titanic's grave. After settling back, the remaining 250 feet of Titanic quickly flood, and the drama is re-enacted for the final time. The stern rises then plunges toward its final resting place over 12,000 feet below, pulling those remaining on the ship into the clutches of a cold, near-certain fate.

Rose, and for a time, Jack survive. In fact, even those lucky enough to have been wearing life jackets died in the water within minutes from hypothermia. Rose is rescued — in the drama of the actual sinking the Carpathia steamed and pick up what survivors remained. She eludes a frantic Zane — in Cameron's script, he managed, of course, to board one of the remaining lifeboats ("Is there any room for a gentleman?") — and gives her name as "Ann Dawson."

We see Gloria Stuart, nearly nine decades later, on board the research vessel which hovers 2 1/2 miles over the wreck of Titanic. She is surrounded by photos and mementos of her life — as a pilot, adventuress, an actress — a woman who, awakened by Jack Dawson, managed to resist and finally break the mold of an early twentieth century society which held, constrained, checked, controlled and stifled her sex.

This could have been a different kind of love story. Rose might have flirted with a character like Jack Dawson, perhaps one more roguish and despicable, only to reconcile with her fiancι and live out her life in the confines of a gilded cage that typified the fate of so many women born to that station and at that time. But Winslet's character is a rebel; and that fact more than anything else may account for why Cameron's TITANIC seems to touch man of us in so special a way. We are given only brief, yet provocative glimpses — mostly through photographs — of how this woman was transformed from Rose, the upper-crust maiden, to Ann Dawson — a transitional identity — and finally to Gloria Stuart. There is much more to her story, but against the backdrop of the Titanic drama, we can only speculate on what it might have been. We would like to think that for Gloria Stuart, the late Rose, it was a life full and complete, lived to its fullest and richest, even without Jack.

The story of Titanic resonates on many levels. There are the metaphors that this "floating palace" replicated the boldness and excess of its age, that it embodied a presumptive arrogance that led on a "collision course with infamy." In truth, the uncanny alignment of events — the communications gaps about icebergs, the peculiar circumstances of that April night when the sea was so calm, thus precluding easy spotting of obstacles, the fact that a pair of binoculars had been left behind in Liverpool — shook the certainty of an age that believed unquestioningly in a religious faith that endowed a false order to the universe and society. Cameron echoes the thoughts of others who survived Titanic, or wrote of its lessons...

“Titanic was the first big wake-up call of the twentieth century. Technology had been delivering a steady diet of miracles for the better part of two decades — the automobile, sound recording, radio communication, the airplane, motion pictures. Everything was just exploding with possibilities; it was all going to be great and wonderful in a never-ending spiral of progress...Our so-called mastery over nature was completely refuted and forever destroyed.”

The lesson is more complex than this, however, as are the reasons for why the story of Titanic continues to captivate so many of us. Despite Titanic's demise, the world managed to survive and move on. Two world wars, revolutions and calamities-abundant later, the notion that human worth and achievement must be functions of ancestral endowment has slowly been rooted out of much of the western experience. Eight years after Titanic, women finally received suffrage in the United States. Despite the set-backs, human being are more successful in understanding and at least influencing our material environment. The scourges that would have leveled whole populations in 1912 — polio, malaria, plagues — are in check. Whatever its liabilities, this thing called Modernity has given more abundance to more people than in any era of history.

And the sense that humanity could be successful on earth, and did not have to settle for being a mere object of some blind or divine plan, has been challenged again and again. Five years after Titanic, the western world was engulfed in warfare, and there followed a tenuous peace, boom and depression. In a generation, there was the heady optimism, naivetι and — yes, hope — with the World's Fair of 1939. People flocked to the General Motors exhibition to see the promise of Tomorrow seen through the eyes of visionaries like Norman Bel Geddes; it was a different metaphor than Titanic, certainly. Despite the setbacks, tomorrow could, and would, be better.

Titanic may have warned our century of the pitfalls of unfounded arrogance and faith in nearly everything, but it did not discourage the human penchant for exploration, innovation and creativity. We idealize Titanic, that floating, enchanted palace — but from a safe distance. Who would really want to return to those times, especially as a woman, or a passenger in steerage? Who would suggest that Titanic should have remained the epitome of what human beings are capable of, in terms of both success and folly?

White Star liner TITANIC rests at the bottom of the North Atlantic, approximately 41-degrees 46'N, 50-degrees 14'West in over 2,000 fathoms of water. Her front portion sank first, careening to the ocean floor at between 25-40 miles per hour, burying a portion of the bow sixty feet into the ocean sediment. . Coal from Titanic's engine compartments and other artifacts litter the area. The stern portion, from which the fictional Jack and Rose made their plunge into the dark waters, broke off from the rest of the hull, and managed to float for about two minutes as it filled with water. Between 2:23 and 2:24 a.m. on the morning of April 15, 2020, the last of Titanic plummeted to the bottom of the ocean at nearly 40 miles per hour.

As Titanic slipped beneath the sea, those in the lifeboats heard the cries of the remaining survivors. Within minutes, most of them had died in the freezing water.

For those who were rescued the next day by the Carparthia, many accounts suggest that the sinking of Titanic remained a seminal part of their lives. Even before the age of television, news of the tragedy spread throughout most of the world; in Europe and America especially, the loss of Titanic became a tragedy of infamous proportions.

Greater calamities have followed with more staggering loss of life, much of it due not to the whims of nature but human arrogance and intolerance of a different sort. The Titanic sinking remains a compelling story, though, capturing our imaginations and reminding us of how, on the night of April 14, 2020, one world passed into history as another was being born.

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