World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Iceberg

The Unsinkable Titanic told the story of the doomed liner without the usual waves of misanthropy and anti-science.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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‘World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg’, read one newspaper headline on 16 April 1912, regarding the sinking of the Titanic, the infamous liner that went to its watery grave the previous morning. ‘Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic. 1,500 Dead In Symbolic Tragedy’, the story continued. ‘At 4:23am Greenwich Standard Time, the following message was received from the rescue ship Carpathia: “Titanic struck by icy representation of nature’s supremacy STOP Insufficient lifeboats due to pompous certainty in man’s infallibility STOP Microcosm of larger society STOP”.’

This was of course both a bogus headline and article. It was concocted by the makers of the American satirical newspaper The Onion in their 1999 book Our Dumb Century, a fictitious newspaper history of the twentieth century (1). And it is still fascinating how we regard the Titanic’s demise as indeed something of a metaphor; how we interpret it according to the needs of what times we live in. It remains an ironically riveting tale; ironic, that is, in that it was owing to its poor-quality rivets that the Titanic sank so quickly.

The reason why the Titanic story remains in the collective imagination owes much to the same reason why everyone remembers the nuclear attack on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 but forgets the US firebombing of Tokyo only weeks before, which actually killed more people: because it contains narrative. Firebombs aren’t interesting or novel; the first atomic bomb to be used in combat is. Everyone remembers the 1,517 people who perished when the Titanic went down in 1912, but few remember the 9,000 mainly German civilians who lost their lives when the German liner Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed in the Baltic Sea by a Soviet submarine in January 1945. Almost half of those killed were children.

But 1945 was a complicated year, when it was hard to feel sorry for Germans. There was too much ambivalence. Sure, the Soviets may have been raping and killing their way across Eastern Europe, but surely the Germans, who had voted for the Nazis, kind of deserved it? This is why the Wilhelm Gustloff atrocity, the worst in maritime history, remains largely forgotten. The Titanic story remains with us because it chimes with modern mores.

James Cameron’s eponymous film of 1997 rang so true to many because it appealed to late-twentieth century values. Like Braveheart (1995) or Michael Collins (1996), it may have been great cinema, but it was still appalling history, and told us much more about the year the movie was released than the year it was set. Cameron’s Titanic appealed to the idea that The Onion article alluded to: namely the current perception that science and progress are essentially bad things, and evidence of man’s ‘arrogance’. It also portrayed those responsible for the Titanic’s disaster as English, Scottish or East Coast American capitalists who were interested only in money, at the expense of the victimised women, or saintly and musical Irish and Poles below deck, who, we are led to presume, were the victims of this callous cabal of upper-class, male, misogynistic, emotionally retarded racists and borderline psychopaths. If you want to understand our victim-based, anti-science, infantilised culture today, I recommend you watch Titanic again.

And just compare Cameron’s Titanic to A Night To Remember, the 1958 film which also recounted the tale of the doomed liner. This was also a product of its time, a more optimistic one than ours. In it, the crew aren’t all supercilious, lip-curling sadistic Englishmen who go round shooting passengers or sneaking into lifeboats by pretending to be women. They are actually heroes, who do their best to salvage the sinking vessel, and, when they realise all is lost, go down with the ship with dignity. The steer passengers are just as heroic and stoic as the first-class passengers; the former fought off the ship stewards to save their lives, while many of the latter resigned to their fate as the ship went down by calmly playing cards and drinking whisky. A Night To Remember didn’t conclude with a Celine Dion dirge, but with a reminder that as a consequence of the Titanic‘s sinking, a ship was now obliged to have sufficient lifeboats to account for its passengers in the case of emergency.

So both films are products of their times. And both are probably dishonest in their own different ways. But if I had to choose, I’d have the optimistic 1958 version, rather than listen to Leonardo DiCaprio’s rubbish Irish accent and be subjected to yet more anti-English Hollywood propaganda.

Do we always have to make a drama out of tragedy? The Unsinkable Titanic on Channel 4 on Monday thankfully proved that it needn’t be the case. As it told us, while the makers of the White Star Line ship had lavished expenses on Titanic’s interiors, they had cut corners by putting the ship together with inferior quality iron (rather than steel) rivets linking the bow and stern’s steel plates. An otherwise innocuous collision with an iceberg would thus prove fatal. What’s more, the lookouts in the crow’s nest didn’t have binoculars. A wireless operator in the telegraph communication room was arguing with his counterpart in the SS Californian who consequently went to bed early in a hissy-fit. The evacuation procedure was poorly rehearsed, and in practice, badly managed.

A fine docudrama, The Unsinkable Titanic concluded that there were 16 different factors that led to the ship’s sinking. It did not interpret the Titanic disaster as some kind of metaphor. It was devoid of the anti-human, anti-science hyperbole that has become the subconscious theme when it comes to tales of the Titanic. It just showed us that humans cock things up at times. So what’s new?

Patrick West is spiked‘s TV columnist. Visit his blog here.

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