What is the real Titanic?

The 100 year anniversary of Titanic sinking happened earlier this month which brought the film and story into the news papers again.

It kept me thinking about a time when I had to watch Titanic over and over again in order to write about James Cameron’s depiction of the Titanic.

I choose to look at gender and class as well whether or not Cameron’s idea of the Titanic was accurate or not.

Since it has been getting so much attention, I thought I would share my work, which I produced two years ago, with everyone.

The significance of R.M.S Titanic’s maiden and tragic voyage has mirrored the immense cultural importance of James Cameron’s Titanic, a movie as celebrated and revolutionary as the majestic ship herself. Headlines around the world talked about the film’s success and innovative special effects just as headlines had once announced and glorified R.M.S Titanic’s disastrous fate. R.M.S Titanic, the most expensive and technological ship of its time, is famous for it was an ‘unsinkable’ ship that sank, and for not only the number of casualties but the disproportionately of both gender and class that died on the ship. Emulating the famous tragedy, Cameron first pitched this story as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” (“Eye For Film”), a period love story that combined many common aspects Cameron’s work including action, adventure, and the use of technology. Using the setting of the R.M.S Titanic, Cameron was able to incorporate historical accuracy (and inaccuracy) to fictional characters and storylines. Titanic’s plot entails two different stories, one set in modern-day and the other set in 1912 which are brought together by both the R.M.S Titanic and the female protagonist, Rose. The movie starts out with a modern-day treasure hunter, Brock Lovett, searching the underwater wreckage of the R.M.S. Titanic for a diamond necklace known as ‘The Heart of the Ocean.’ Instead of finding the diamond, he finds a drawing of a young woman wearing the diamond dated April 12, 1912 – the night the Titanic hit an iceberg and fell onto the cold ocean floor. Rose, an elderly woman, announces that she is in fact the young woman and begins to narrate her story to Brock, his crew, and the audience as we see her flashbacks aboard the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Throughout the movie, we realize that Elderly Rose is a narrator as much as she is a gateway to the past as “[she] is our guide at crucial moments, remarking and marking the stages of unfolding of the story, and their wider significance. But she does not control what is being shown… we see and know things she could not have seen or known.” (Barker 100).

Through her descriptions, we are shown the young Rose boarding the Titanic with her aristocratic and high-class mother Ruth, and her rich, arrogant fiancé Cal. Although she seems well accustomed to the high-brow traditions, we hear through Elderly Rose’s narrations of her oppression as a youth, “it was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains” (Titanic), which is established when she later tries to commit suicide aboard the Titanic. She is saved and later inspired by Jack, a young, idealistic artist who won his trip, along with his Italian friend Fabrizio’s, in a poker game only minutes before the Titanic set sail. Throughout the movie, Rose and Jack fall in love despite the difference in class, the objection of Ruth, and Cal’s jealous attempts to secure Rose as his property. He introduces her to a life that is not defined by money or stature but by integrity and humanity. Rose soon develops into the independent and headstrong woman that she has always dreamed of becoming. Their love story is cut short as the Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins its decent to the ocean floor. Rose decides to abandon her mother and Cal, and stay with Jack on the sinking vessel. The movie begins to show a broader scope of passengers fighting to stay alive as the ship sinks, and few crew members decide who will live and who will die; most notably the ‘women and children first’ policy of the limited lifeboats and the locking of third class passengers within the sinking ship. Jack and Rose survive the sinking, only to be abandoned in the freezing water along with around 1500 others. Jack sacrifices himself to the cold so Rose can lie on a piece of wood, ultimately saving her life. The movie comes to a close with Rose revealing to the audience that she, in fact, has the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ and throws it into the water to join the Titanic on the ocean floor.

The theme of re-writing history is crucial to the story as Cameron is depicting fictional characters along with characters based on real-life individuals aboard the historical and authentic R.M.S. Titanic. Not only are no survivors alive today, but many of the depictions shown can only be considered fictional as all who were present died aboard the Titanic because of the very actions shown. For example, there is speculation about what truly happened in the third-class areas because most perished aboard the Titanic. This makes it very hard to distinguish the accuracy of details. Some information is known through survivors choosing to share their stories in interviews but when rewriting such a famous and influence history, one must wonder: what actually happened on the Titanic and did Cameron present an accurate tale that respects the true story of the Titanic?

Cameron visited the submerged Titanic, found only in 1985, twelve times before making this movie and filmed all the footage that showed the R.M.S Titanic in the deep. (Marsh i) Cameron, known for his perfectionism and attention to detail, has stated that “’this movie as close as you can get to being in a time machine and going back to the ship’” (Marsh 13). Well with a budget that kept crawling to $300 million dollars, the backing studios and audiences sure hoped that this statement would live up to the expectation. The re-creation of the ship for the film was modeled after original designs and many items, from furniture to the dishes, were made uniquely for the movie to replicate the objects that were on the ship (Marsh 34). Titanic’s spectacle of fashion, architecture, and furnishings create a scene that is of a time past, the time period of the Titanic. Although the setting of the ship is defining of the film, Titanic emphasizes the humanity of the ship, and not the fixings and ship itself. Therefore, the surroundings of rewriting R.M.S Titanic’s history may be accurate, but the emotion expressed in this film lie within the historical accuracy of its passengers, people who encompass human emotions.

Although the two main characters are completely fictionally, Cameron chose to incorporate the names and stories of the real-life passengers of the R.M.S Titanic. These most notably include: Captain Smith; Margaret “Molly” Brown, known for leading the women of survivors and fighting to save more lives; John Jacob Astor, the richest man aboard; Thomas Andrews, chief designer of Titanic; and Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line but more famously known for the scapegoat of the sinking ship as he was a ‘coward’ who survived by means of a lifeboat. Although some of these people perished on the ship’s voyage, their stories deserve dignity, as they are real people. For dramatical effect, Cameron had the ability to manipulate their stories for entertainment. For example, after the movie came out, relatives of Officer William Murdoch were outraged by his depiction of the film, as there is no accurate account that he committed suicide aboard the R.M.S Titanic. Although “based on witness testimony, historians are fairly certain that an officer did commit suicide, but it can’t be said with absolute certainty that it was First Officer Murdoch” (“Chasing the Frog”). An apology and donation to his estate by studio executives followed, but the slander of Officer Murdoch’s final hours will be imprinted on the film Titanic.

Another story shown briefly, with its explanation left on the cutting room floor, is the story of Isidor and Ida Straus. Depicting as a couple lying of a bed together with water rushing underneath, the Straus’s were the co-owners of Macy’s department store and perished aboard the Titanic. The significance of their death is unbeknownst to the audience as Cameron chose to cut the scene although did not accurately portray their moments, but played true to their legacy. Many witnesses confirmed that Isidor Straus and his wife were offered a spot on a lifeboat, but Isidor refused to take it before a woman or child. Ida then famously said “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go”’ (“I survived the Titanic”). These stories of ‘characters’ aboard the Titanic are well-known and documented because of who they were in high-class society. Newspapers printed stories about these rich heroic men who chose to go down with the ship to allow for women and children to be saved. Ida Straus was praised for ‘“the wifely devotion and love… for her partner of a lifetime stands out in noble contrast”’ (Biel 33). Their fame was only made greater by their sacrifice (or in Ismay’s case abandonment) to die aboard the Titanic. The deceased and survivors of R.M.S Titanic depicted in the movie all had human features of that made them susceptible to two other important elements: class and gender stratification.

Class is one of the main themes in this film mostly due to the juxtaposition of the rich and poor, and that this difference is carried out after the ship starts sinking. Cal, a character written by Cameron, represents an upper-class society member to the extreme, with his arrogant, cocky, narrow-mindedly selfish ways. Throughout the movie, he makes direct reference to being far superior to everyone else, particularly in the panic of the ships’ sinking. Rose’s tries to convey some kind of emotion and responsibility within her mother when stating that there are not enough lifeboats for all aboard, “Half the people on this ship are going to die.” Cal’s cold-hearted response is “Not the better half” (Titanic), although crude and egotistical proves to be correct when looking at how Cameron portrays the third class passengers during Titanic last hours. Whether or not the scenes are historically accurate, Cameron takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, mixing highly affecting and disturbing scenes of discrimination against the poor, with special effects of the ship sinking. All the classes were segregated on the ship, the third class by means of gates that Cameron depicts as being locked to hold men, women, and children in the interior of the ship. Locked in like animal, these passengers had no way out, doomed to die aboard the Titanic without any opportunity or chance to save themselves.

This difference in wealth, the main distinction between our love story of Jack and Rose, also had a define emphasis in Titanic and has now historically defined its legacy. But is this depiction of rewriting history accurate or did James Cameron profit off of dramatizing the treatment of those in third class? The official representative of third-class interests stated to the British Court of Inquiry that there was “no trace of discrimination… and the only surviving steward stationed in steerage freely conceded that the men were kept below decks as late as 1:15 a.m.” (Lord 130) However, the Inquiry failed to have a third-class passenger testify, making it hard to distinguish what had happened that night. The overall survival rate, non dependant on class, for men was 20%, 74% women, and 52% of children. Although first-class men were more likely to survive, when looking at the classes of this individuals it can be said that “most of the variance in first class vs. third class survival rates can be attributed to sex alone… class is a far weaker variable in determining survival rate than sex or age” (“Official Casualty Figures and Commentary Official Casualty Figures and Commentary”). A disproportionate number of men perished, as well as 30% of third-class women and children. This compared to only 8% of women and children that perished of second and first-class. Titanic had a clear class stratification, but whether this attributed to the unproportional number of deaths cannot be seen as fact, even with these numbers. What can be seen as fact is the ‘women and children first’ policy that created a clear divide of those worthy of saving.

This brings us to a theme of gender which not only influenced the survival rate, but also how the story is told through Rose’s narration and point-of-view. Rose boards the ship as a woman engaged to a prominent heir of high-class standing who keeps Rose quietly obedient to him. As discussed before, she feels trapped in a system that holds her only as a woman, a decoration of sorts, and not as a human being. She rebels against hierarchical traditions and “turns, by the film’s indication, into a perfect modern women – [but] one entirely of Jack’s making” (Barker 99). This film indicated that without Jack’s help and motivation, she might have been lost in high-brow tradition long after the Titanic sank. At this point in history, women’s only rights were the ones that their husbands or fathers bestowed upon them. Legal rights for women were unheard of and the suffragette movement was still struggling. Cameron chose to show this patriarchal system through Rose’s transformation, the realization that she has a choice in her own life.

Aboard the R.M.S. Titanic as well as in the film, the ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown also has a huge part in influencing our look at gender. Seen as ‘new money’ by her white-collared peers, she did not represent the same hierarchical system as shown when she lends Jack a suit in the movie to attend a first class dinner. The real-life Molly emerged as the women’s leader, with an energetic spirit, when she made a great effort to get her lifeboat to go back and save those abandoned in the water,

“She and several other women in the boat began demanding [to] return for those in the water. [The Quarter-master] Hitchens refused…. Fed up, Brown pushed her way to the stern and took over the tiller from him [telling] him that if he made a move toward her, she would throw him overboard” (Barczewski 30-31).

Cameron’s film did feature Molly trying to convince the lifeboats to turn around, but not to such the extent that she rose above the crewman in charge to achieve her goal of saving more lives. Cameron’s decision to de-emphasize Molly’s story may be due to what he wanted gender to look like about his Titanic. In the film, Molly was ultimately defeated by the crewman and instead sat listening to the howls of those dying in the ocean. Instead of being brave, Cameron’s interpretations have her shrunk under the hierarchical system. Unlike Rose, a fictional heroine of Cameron’s imagination, Molly Brown was known as a true heroine of R.M.S. Titanic, unbeknownst to those watching Cameron’s Titanic.

            Cameron placed themes of gender and class on the Titanic, just as they historically were present. He created a blockbuster sensation by using these and other common human characteristics to create a film that modern people could marvel at and relate to. He used the segregation and discrimination of class to create compassion among the modern audience, now free of structured hierarchical system. He created a story of humanity set parallel to a technological masterpiece that was able to re-enact how R.M.S. Titanic went down using scientific analysis. He created a revolutionary story of the rejection of the patriarchal system for love. Cameron was able to re-write what could have happened the fateful night that Titanic would become a tombstone for over half its passengers.

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