Almost immediately after its 1997 release, it became fashionable to dislike, criticise or “hate on” Titanic. This isn’t something specific to this juggernaut historical blockbuster. The trend of massively commercially successful movies that also garner critical acclaim in spite of their commercial success, stretches pretty far back, and there are ample examples. But Titanic is pretty much the most indelible example of this audience reaction or, rather, revolt, in recent memory.
Films like Titanic are often criticised for the same things, because according to the public they have the same essential elements: big budget over artistic substance or realism, Hollywood manufactured actors, overblown/ heightened romance, and, of course, a sentimental central tenet and ending.
I admit that for many, many years I was one of the people who was highly critical of Titanic and openly scoffed at those who enjoyed the film. And until very recently, I still had my criticisms, like the fact that Cameron focuses more on the improbable romance between Jack and Rose than the death of over a thousand people who died in a myriad of horrific ways, most of whom were in steerage, and perished due to the hubris of White Star and the captain that helmed the ship.
But… upon watching it recently I actually came to realise that Titanic actually has elements to… like about it? And that it really isn’t that… bad? Wait a minute! Don’t stop reading! Hear me out.
James Cameron’s passion, for a very long time, was shipwrecks. He described the Titanic as the “Mount Everest” of shipwrecks, and the film became a way for him to capture something that he felt he had turned away from in his youth by becoming a filmmaker and not a scientist. Cameron’s real footage and underwater dives to the wreck of the ship, which were included in the film, were the first time that most people had the opportunity to see what the ship looked like after almost ninety years of lying at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Bill Paxton’s character acts as a surrogate for Cameron, as the adventurer who wants to not only explore the most famous shipwreck ever, but also find a symbol of the past within the Heart of the Ocean diamond.
Upon rewatching the film, and reading about Cameron’s research and writing process, I began to realise that my long held belief that Cameron didn’t care about or properly represent the lives of the people involved in the tragedy, other than the fictitious Jack and Rose, was actually inaccurate. As Cameron put it:
“The story could not have been written better…The juxtaposition of rich and poor, the gender roles played out unto death (women first), the stoicism and nobility of a bygone age, the magnificence of the great ship matched in scale only by the folly of the men who drove her hell-bent through the darkness. And above all the lesson: that life is uncertain, the future unknowable…the unthinkable possible.”
For a long time I’ve tried to figure out why Titanic works. Why it is still a landmark film in terms of its critical and commercial success, as well as the sheer force with which it launched DiCaprio and Winslet’s careers, and solidified Cameron’s place as one of the most famous directors of the 20th century. And I think the reason is exactly as Cameron says himself, it’s the fact that he humanises the tragedy. He admitted that he took much inspiration from the 1958 film, A Night to Remember, such as the humanising of the people in steerage through a rowdy dance scene, and the poignancy of the musicians playing as the ship sank. What Cameron also does is show the suffocating reality of the class system of the Edwardian era. Rose comes alive through her love for Jack because unlike her fiancé, played by Billy Zane, he does not treat her like a possession.
Whilst their love story has been the centre of much of the backlash, parody and criticism for the film, it’s actually what makes the film work. Essentially, through her love for Jack, Rose matured into the woman we see many years later, and Cameron’s focus on a female character, casting her as the narrator of the story, is actually very refreshing.
There are, of course, liberties taken with history. Cameron does not explain that steerage was locked to prevent disease from supposedly spreading to the upper decks, which showed the appalling treatment of the steerage passengers. But he does convey the damaging and dehumanising nature of the class system by showing how so many passengers in steerage met their end due to discriminatory class centred policies. And how through trying to start a new life in America, the working class were trying to escape the poverty of Europe, but died because of the existence of the very system that they were trying to escape.
I’ve come to realise that it’s not actually Cameron’s writing that’s the problem. Through his screenplay he manages to bring to life the kinds of people who were aboard the ship. He understands that storytelling and history are often blurred, and that dry facts do not elicit the interest and empathy that an historical love story amidst a famous human disaster can. What I’ve come to realise is that the audience didn’t always fully understand what Cameron was trying to achieve. Instead of focusing on the fact that Jack’s death is symbolic of so many things about the Titanic, they focus on the fact that they could’ve both fit on the door, which dilutes Cameron’s reason for including that scene.
Quite a few years ago, I visited an exhibition dedicated to the Titanic. I looked at the objects that had once belonged to the passengers, like hairbrushes, picture frames and shoes (of which there are many at the site of the Titanic). There was also a recreation of a suite that the upper classes would’ve occupied during the voyage, and a reproduction of the menu that the different classes would have chosen their meals from. That exhibition humanised the people who have, for many years, become faceless death statistics. I read the names of the people who had hoped for a better future, but had not found it. I’ve come to realise that Cameron’s film does the same thing: it brings to life the people who died that night over a hundred years ago, from the elderly couple who lay in bed together, holding hands as the end neared, to the young mother who saved her children from a painful death by putting them to sleep forever.
And in Rose and Jack I have come to see the changing social reality that the sinking of the Titanic and eventually the First World War would bring, when the supposedly halcyon days of a bygone era was fractured, and like many times before and after, an innocence was lost.