FILMS

Keeping the ship afloat

A 1912 disaster at sea fuels a pop culture phenomenon

JOE CHIDLEY December 8 1997
FILMS

Keeping the ship afloat

A 1912 disaster at sea fuels a pop culture phenomenon

JOE CHIDLEY December 8 1997

Keeping the ship afloat

FILMS

A 1912 disaster at sea fuels a pop culture phenomenon

JOE CHIDLEY

Her maiden voyage was ominous from the start. Leaving port in Southampton, England, bound for New York City, the RMS Titanic—the biggest moving object on earth, the most luxurious ocean-going vessel of its day, and widely considered to be unsinkable—came within inches of colliding with a nearby liner that got caught in the gigantic ship’s wake. Four days later, on Sunday, April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic careened against an iceberg 650 km southeast of Newfoundland. At first the damage appeared minor, and even after Capt. Edward John Smith gave the order to man the lifeboats, many passengers refused to believe the ship was in trouble. But at 2:20 a.m., the water-filled bow of the 230-m ship plunged into the ocean and, as her stern reared up, the Titanic broke in two. Within minutes, she lay on the ocean floor, 2'A miles below the surface of the Atlantic. Of her passengers and crew, only 705 escaped on lifeboats; 1,522 people, among them the cream of Edwardian society, perished at sea. The impossible had happened: the Titanic had sunk.

But that is only the beginning of the story. For if the Titanic’s real-life voyage ended on that moonless North Atlantic night, its journey through the popular imagination continues to this day. In

the 85 years since the ship went down, it has inspired camp songs and conspiracy theories, countless books, aTony Awardwinning Broadway musical and a bestu selling computer game. It has lived on in I TV mini-series, documentaries and null merous Hollywood adaptations, culmi1 nating this year with the release of filmI maker James Cameron’s Titanic—the g most expensive movie ever made. The g Titanic has become a cultural industry in § itself, an entertainment factory of, well, titanic proportions.

What’s the allure? There have been bigger human tragedies, claiming far more lives. Yet few have lingered so persistently—or inspired so many interpretations. It is the classic man-versus-nature story, a watery admonition about the supremacy of nature. It is an epic on the scale of a Greek tragedy, complete with its own element of hubris: the fatal pride of an era whose faith in technology and progress bordered on the religious. And it is perhaps the definitive fin de siècle story: an age of excess and luxury, represented by the opulently appointed ship and by such wealthy passengers as John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Straus, passes into history. “It’s like a great Shakespearean play,” says deep-sea diver Dr. Joseph Maclnnis, the first Canadian to view the actual wreckage, two years after its 1985 discovery by a U.S.French team led by American Robert Ballard. “You can get out of it

whatever you want, from counting the buttons on Capt. Smith’s uniform to real, deep meaning.”

Like the assassination of John E Kennedy or the death of Elvis Presley, the Titanic disaster has been the source of a raft of misinformation and phoney theories. And that goes right back to 1912. On the Monday of the wreck, newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic mistakenly reported that all Titanic passengers had survived and the steamer was safely in tow. Days later, the world realized the full extent of the calamity and struggled to make sense of it—and the first in a long line of unusual theories began to circulate. According to one of them, a pharaoh’s sarcophagus had been smuggled aboard, angering Egyptian gods who awoke from their ancient slumber to smite the ship. A less supernatural theory emerged in 1995, with the publication of The Riddle of the Titanic, by Robin Gardiner and Dan van der Vat, who suggest the Titanic did not sink at all. Instead, they hypothesize, it was her sister ship, the Olympic, that foundered off Newfoundland in a complex insurance scam gone horribly awry.

Much of the mystique about the Titanic tragedy arose from early newspaper accounts of derring-do and depravity, based loosely on firsthand reports from survivors or, more often, on rumor and speculation. There was the tale of the man who dressed as a woman to assure himself a lifeboat seat (unconfirmed) ; of the first officer who, overcome with guilt at not heeding the first iceberg warnings, shot himself (still debated) ; of Ida Straus, who chose to die alongside her husband rather than flee to safety (true); of Capt. Smith telling his crew to “Be British, boys, be British!” or swimming to a lifeboat with a baby in his arms and then returning to go down with his ship. Both are unconfirmed: Smith was last seen entering the bridge alone, just before his ship sank. (The baby story resurfaced in the late 1980s in the tabloid Weekly World News, which reported Smith and the child had been found safe and sound, floating in the sea—only to be abducted by aliens a few weeks later.)

The Titanic put the phrase “Women and children first!” into common parlance. And in the wake of the wreck, newspaper editorialists and eulogists widely praised the chivalry of first-class gentlemen who allegedly gave up their lifeboat seats so that women and children from third-class—mostly immigrants, it was pointedly noted— could survive. But the statistics contradict that pretty notion: half of the women and children (along with 80 per cent of the men) travelling third-class died, while all but one child in first-class (Lorraine Allison, daughter of Canadian banker Hudson Allison) survived, as did almost half of first-class men.

Still, it did not take long for Hollywood to recognize a good thing. And lest anyone think the 1990s have cornered the market in cheap sensationalism, consider that Saved from the Titanic, a largely fanciful silent film shot aboard the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, was released just one month after the disaster. The movie did strike one note of authenticity: Miss Dorothy Gibson, a part-time actress and first-class passenger on the Titanic, had the starring role. Although she was reportedly the first person into a lifeboat on that fateful

night, in the movie she is nearly the last—being the heroine, she saves numerous lives before abandoning ship.

Over the years, celluloid’s often-ignoble love affair with the Titanic has produced some entertaining, if barely factual, fare. The 1953 epic Titanic won an Oscar for best screenplay, but is more a romantic potboiler than a faithful re-creation of events. Despite some minor historical errors, A Night to Remember (1958), based on Walter Lord’s still-definitive 1955 book, does much better, using sets based on the shipmaker’s designs and featuring excellent special effects. But the award for most imaginative (and appalling) screen adaptation goes to Josef Göbbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, who ordered a retelling of the Titanic story with a decidedly political twist: the British and American crew members are portrayed as incompetent drunks, while the sole heroic figure is of German stock. The movie, thankfully, was never released.

Factual or not, all the movies, books and conspiracy theories have certainly kept the memory of the tragedy alive. The

less-than-accurate 1953 film, for instance, first piqued the curiosity of Ed Kamuda, founder of the Indian Orchard, Mass.-based Titanic Historical Society. “I couldn’t imagine something like that actually happening,” recalls Kamuda, who saw the movie when he was 16. “I thought it was a figment of Hollywood’s imagination.” In the years that followed, he read up on the real event and began corresponding with Titanic survivors. In 1963, Kamuda, a jeweller by trade, founded the historical society, dedicated to preserving the factual history of the Titanic. It now has 5,200 members worldwide, publishes the monthly magazine The Titanic Commutator, and holds annual conventions attended by as many as 1,200 Titanic enthusiasts.

Kamuda says the Titanic and its tragic story have never been more popular. And one reason is the widely publicized—and still ongoing—exploration of the wreck site. The 1985 discovery of the Titanic solved one of maritime history’s longest-standing mysteries: where the Titanic was, exactly. But it also shed light on how it sunk. On-site observation confirmed survivors’ claims that the ship broke in two before going down. And it has supported the theory that the iceberg initially inflicted relatively light damage—a series of small breaches along the Titanic’s hull—rather than a gaping wound, The discovery has also created a small industry in Titanic artifacts, retrieved by New York-based RMS Titanic Inc., which holds the salvage rights to the ship and has put the objects on display at exhibitions around the world.

As far as Kamuda is concerned, the ship—and the memories of those who died—should be left in peace. “You really can’t learn any more about the Titanic from the site,” he says. And as for the coming movie, on which society historian Don Lynch was a consultant, Kamuda is confident it will be “historically accurate.” But he also suspects it may spell the beginning of the end for Titanic-mania. “I’m afraid the public may become oversaturated with this stuff,” Kamuda says. “This movie’s the biggest thing that’s ever come out—I don’t think they can ever top this.” That may be true. But given the enduring appeal of the Titanic myth, somebody is bound to try. □