Fact & Fiction: Titanic (1997)

James Cameron's Titanic is regarded as one of the most successful films of all time.
James Cameron’s Titanic is regarded as one of the most successful films of all time.

Titanic is an interesting piece of fiction to consider. Director James Cameron is hailed as a  ‘hugely respected Titanic expert’. The film itself was, at the time, heralded as one of the most historically accurate versions of the ship ever to be put on the big screen, yet despite this, it is riddled with glaring inaccuracies.

So how can it claim to be both fact and fiction at the same time? James Cameron has visited the wreck frequently, and the film’s depiction of the ship as a physical specimen is indeed historically accurate. The events that unfold upon the ship as it sinks and the characters involved, however, are twisted and dramatised until they bear no resemblance to what actually happened. Some characters and events are of course completely fictional, but this is where the problem arises. When the words ‘James Cameron’s Titanic is the most historically accurate Titanic film ever made’ appear they are rarely followed by the qualifier ‘but only in regards to the design specifications of the ship‘.

For a film that does not claim to be an accurate depiction of events, it certainly leaves a lasting impression in the public consciousness about what happened the night of April 14th 1912. The result is that many people will happily accept

Titanic as an accurate account of the sinking, when it is simply untrue. I don’t intend to nitpick and point out the minor issues, but I will focus on the gravest inaccuracies that have filtered into general acceptance and have the most damaging repercussions; namely the actions of the Titanic crew.

Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch, both of whom went down with the ship.
Captain Smith and First Officer Murdoch, both of whom went down with the ship.

Titanic is, first and foremost, a love story; the fictional Jack and Rose fall in love against the backdrop of the disaster. Furthermore, we have the thinly veiled ‘American Dream’ metaphor prevailing over the stuffy, conservative and above all, elitist metaphor. The American boy from steerage shows the English rich-girl how to love, be free, live her dreams etc. Without exception, the English are shown to be the worst kind of aristocratic stereotypes, looking down on everyone around them, while arrogantly assuming themselves to be untouchable.

However by presenting the English crew and passengers in this way, Cameron is then faced with a problem. Historically these morally unsound characters showed themselves to be heroic and fearless in the face of certain death, something which we cannot expect from his dramatised caricatures. Cameron chooses to ignore their actions as recorded in history and instead the bumbling Englishmen are shown to be just that; bumbling, inept fools who descend into chaos and panic the moment the ship begins to sink, unable to maintain order without resorting to shooting the passengers.

This is so far from the truth it is insulting. Indeed, so offensive was the portrayal of First Officer William Murdoch to his surviving family, that the Vice President of Fox personally made the journey to Murdoch’s hometown to apologise and donate £5,000 to the William Murdoch memorial prize hosted at Murdoch’s local school.
As well as suffering from general ineptitude, by dint of being English and the officer who failed to avoid the iceberg, Murdoch is also presented as a corrupt murderer and then a coward. After accepting a bribe to let a man onto one of the lifeboats he then shoots two passengers dead, before, overwhelmed with guilt and/or despair he shoots himself in the head. This is a far cry from the man who went down with the ship, his last moments spent filling the lifeboats with women, children and indeed men. In the DVD commentary Cameron justifies the decision to include this scene by saying that officers did fire shots to prevent passengers rushing the lifeboats. While an officer did fire two shots into the air to prevent a small group of Italian steerage passengers leaping into one of the boats, the officer in question was not Murdoch. He certainly did not kill anyone and there is nothing to suggest that he was bribed to allow men into the boats. On the contrary, Murdoch was one of the few officers who, in the absence of any willing women, allowed men into the lifeboats anyway.

While Murdoch gains the most notoriety from the film, the other officers do not fare much better. Second Officer Charles Lightoller is shown to be so panic-stricken that he launches boats with hardly anyone in them, far below their capacity. It takes a stern admonishment from ship builder Thomas Andrews to convince the dismissive Lightoller to fill the boats, the suggestion being that he is holding back passengers, sending boats out with just a handful of people because of his fear and panic. Actually, the boats that were sent away half full was mostly due to the passengers themselves. So many of them simply could not grasp the seriousness of their situation that they preferred to remain on board Titanic, rather than brave the water in what they considered flimsy lifeboats. Lightoller emerged as one of the more heroic men on the ship. After the ship had sunk he gathered survivors from the water onto an overturned collapsible lifeboat. Under his direction the men balanced upon it until the Carpathia arrived four hours later. Lightoller went on to present evidence at the various inquiries into the disaster.

The crew of the Titanic, most of whom went down with the ship, but in rather different circumstance.
The crew of the Titanic, most of whom went down with the ship, but in rather different circumstance.

If Lightoller is presented as panicked, the Captain; Edward Smith can only be described as catatonic. After allowing himself to be pressured into exceeding safe speed limits by the ship designer, Bruce Ismay, the captain seems to have a type of mental breakdown when faced with the enormity of the situation. Lightoller has to suggest courses of action to which he numbly agrees, repeating what Lightoller says without any feeling or input. After being asked by a steerage woman with a baby where she could go to save herself and her child, he merely turns away and locks himself in his cabin waiting for death. The two are later seen in the water, presumably killed by the captain’s inaction. Again, historically Edward Smith filled the lifeboats until there were no more to be filled. Nobody is sure how he died, though there were rumours that he swam up to Lightoller’s overturned boat, placing a baby in the arms of a passenger before swimming away to his watery grave, wishing them luck. While this is probably just hero-worship it is far more believable than him simply giving up and leaving his crew to fend for themselves.

And these are just the senior officers! Titanic had literally hundreds of crew aboard; stewards, stewardesses, engineers, firemen etc the majority of whom lost their lives aboard, ensuring that the passengers had the maximum chance of survival. Their stories are not told in Titanic where some of the most heroic actions that occurred aboard are omitted.

A blue plaque marking 2nd officer Lightoller's childhood home. One of many such memorials that exist for the Titanic crew.
A blue plaque marking 2nd officer Lightoller’s childhood home. One of many such memorials that exist for the Titanic crew.

Why is this then the most damaging of inaccuracies? The problem in this instance is that these men are hailed as heroes in their local communities and far more importantly by their families. These men and women are the subject of statues, memorials, streets and schools in their communities. We have already seen that Murdoch’s childhood school has a ‘William Murdoch Memorial Prize’ and this is far from uncommon. Further, the families of these people are still alive. How upsetting it must be to watch such a well received film and watch your uncle/aunt/grandfather/grandmother etc being traduced on screen.

While there have been other fictional portrayals of the crew, as we can expect from such an historical event, none have been dramatised to the point of being unrecognisable as the heroic men and women who gave their lives to ensure the safety of as many passengers as possible. Indeed, it seems Cameron has created an incapable, fictional crew and simply given them the names of the actual officers, rather than portray any of them with the least modicum of respect. It is a shame that in an epic such as Titanic, which actually focuses more on the dramatic love between two make-believe characters it is the pomposity and ineptitude of the people tasked with their safety that people will happily fall upon as historical proof, given to them by an ‘expert’ claiming that it is at least in part, accurate.

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