Taking Titanic seriously will end in disaster
Critics should forget the historical inaccuracies - James Cameron’s rereleased blockbuster is a naff weepy and nothing more.
The announcement that James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, was to be rereleased to mark the centenary of the ocean liner’s disastrous maiden voyage was met with a considerable amount of vitriol from historians and cultural critics.
Alongside the somewhat more sober events set to take place on 15 April to commemorate the sinking of the ‘unsinkable ship’ – including an exhibition in Belfast, where RMS Titanic was built, and a series of seminars in Nova Scotia, close to where it sank – many saw this as Cameron once again cashing in on the tragedy with his fiercely sentimental film. The fact that it has been remastered in 3D has made its release feel all the more in poor taste.
I was all of six years old when Titanic first hit our screens. It was, of course, one of the biggest blockbusters of my childhood. So large was its impact, in fact, that on several occasions during my schooling I was subjected to Titanic-themed history and art projects, all of which involved watching the three-and-a-bit-hour behemoth as a primary piece of research. In the years since, it has become the nostalgia movie of choice among my friends. So I’ve seen it more times than I’d care to count. Seeing it remastered on the big screen, however, made its inadequacy as a historical film more laughably evident than ever.
Given the policed divide between the haughty classes of the upper decks and the lowly paupers of steerage, and the shameful priority given to the wealthy when it came to filling the lifeboats, the Titanic tragedy has often been held up as a telling snapshot of the class politics of the time. Through the star-crossed, and completely fictional, love affair between penniless rogue Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and drippy debutante Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), Cameron attempts to explore the inherent tensions which the ship contained. This rendering, however, is reductive to say the least: the gilded dining rooms of first class are populated by sarcastic, brandy-swilling poshos and the steerage is full of arm-wrestling Germanics and Guinness-guzzling Irishmen who are prone to punch one another or break into a fiddle recital at the slightest provocation. Probably the most coherent message about class we are given, as the two lovers move between their respective camps, is that it’s much more fun to dance a jig below decks than it is to discuss oil prices over caviar.
The stories that survived the ship’s demise are a mix of startling inhumanity and incredible heroism. But Cameron’s manipulative approach often robs his material of its inherent pathos and breeds drastic historical inaccuracies. In its turbulent second half, poignant moments come thick and fast, but many of them are either wholly fictional or shamelessly skewed for the sake of taking some cheap tugs at the heartstrings. The ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown, who in the real tragedy insisted the half-full lifeboats return to collect those still stranded in the ice-cold water, is robbed of her triumphant moment and recast as a much less domineering symbol of feminine subordination. Similarly, as is widely known, the ship’s string quartet played on top deck as the Titanic went down, in order to calm the passengers, but even this incredible part of the tale is soured by the schmaltz Cameron lays over the scene. As the quartet finish their rendition of ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, one of the violinists turns to his fellow musicians and says, ‘Gentleman, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight’. Such candy-coated moments continually deaden the impact of the film’s rich source material.
Cameron once quipped that he only agreed to make the film because a free deep sea dive to the Titanic wreck came as part of the package, suggesting this was never intended to be his magnum opus. Indeed, given the director’s famous meticulousness, the film feels like he has been oddly careless in places. Kate Winslet’s accent is allowed to wander between American, Irish and English with little consequence, and despite a rigorous casting process for the part of Rose’s malevolent fiancé Cal – which saw innumerable famous actors rejected – the appalling Billy Zane was selected, who ends up playing the role like a camp Count Dracula.
Despite all this, the clunking one-liners, the dreadful acting and the cheesy artifice actually gives Titanic its distinctive charm. When watching the released film on the big screen, I was surprised to find that most of my fellow audience members were giggling along at all of the abysmal moments, which also had kept me returning to it over the years. For myself and others it seems, this film is more of a trip down 90s memory lane than it is an historically accurate snapshot of a turn-of-the-century tragedy. As such, criticising Titanic on the grounds of historical infidelity is tantamount to damning Top Gun for giving a rose-tinted portrayal of the lives of fighter pilots – doing so would be to miss the point of what makes these films so memorable.
I completely agree with those who feel Titanic has no place in the proceedings for the centenary of the original tragedy. Not because Cameron’s tacky blockbuster does a disservice to the 1,517 people who lost their lives, but because this film is so inescapably naff that really it shouldn’t be taken that seriously. I urge fans to go and enjoy this guilty pleasure with a clear conscience.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
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