Titanic on screen

Alex Sessa

112 Years on, Titanic continues to fascinate us. Film and TV have helped solidify its legacy.

On the evening of Sunday 14 April 1912, the RMS Titanic was more than halfway through its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. The conditions were, by all accounts, strange that night. The sea was perfectly flat, a ‘dead calm’, and there was no moon. Most passengers were in bed, anticipating their arrival in New York in the days ahead. At roughly 883 feet long, and weighing more than 50,000 tonnes, Titanic was the largest moving object ever constructed, and the latest edition of the White Star Line’s Olympic class. The ship boasted unparalleled luxury at sea and epitomised the class-conscious world of Edwardian society. Her passengers comprised of both the wealthiest and poorest people in the world. Unbeknownst to most of them, Titanic was headed directly toward an icefield, and despite receiving numerous warnings, Captain Edward J. Smith elected to steam ahead. After all, as one newspaper had proclaimed, Titanic was ‘practically unsinkable’. In an age of optimism and triumph, the 2,208 people onboard the Titanic rested easy in the knowledge that they were sailing on the grandest and safest ship ever built. Wealthy First Class passengers were travelling either for business of leisure, while those in Third Class were immigrating to start new lives in America. Yet for all the societal divisions that set these people apart, one thing united them: they were embarking on a journey that would alter history and remain a source of curiosity and fascination into the next century. By 11:40PM, lookout Frederick Fleet spotted a dark outlined object on the horizon. Knowing the danger, he rang the warning bell three times and called down to the bridge, “iceberg straight ahead!” First Officer William Murdoch, swiftly ordered the ship hard to starboard, swinging her bow sharply to the left in a quick effort to steer around the berg. But in just 36 seconds, Titanic collided with the iceberg, breaching her first six watertight compartments – too much for the ship to withstand. In just 2 hours and 40 minutes, Titanic sank, claiming the lives of 1,500 people. Subsequent investigations would determine that insufficient lifeboats were to blame. In the years that followed, the 700 survivors moved on with their lives, forever shaken by the events of that fateful night. New safety regulations were adopted for ocean liners – including the provision of enough lifeboats for everyone onboard. Yet, something about this tragedy refused to fade into obscurity. The Edwardian era marked a period of technological transformations, among which included a curious new novelty: film. Through this new method of storytelling, the Titanic would continue to live on in popular imagination. Just one month after the sinking, Dorothy Gibson – a Titanic survivor and silent film actress – would star in the first ever film about the disaster, Saved from the Titanic. The film was shot at a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and featured the actress wearing the same clothes from the night Titanic sank (a white evening dress and a long sweater). Saved from the Titanic was released internationally and received mixed audience responses. Some criticised it for capitalising off the recent disaster. One critic went so far as to call the film ‘revolting, especially when the horrors of the event are so fresh in mind’. The same year, two more Titanic films were released: La Hantise and In Nacht Und Eis, both of which survive to this day. Sadly, Gibson’s film was lost in a studio fire in 1914. Yet, Titanic’s long and enduring place in cinema was only beginning. In fact, over a century later the story of the Titanic disaster has been told and retold countless times in film and television. IMDb has registered more than 30 films on the subject, ranging from documentaries, to love stories, to television mini-series’. Although Saved From Titanic was lost, the disaster genre of filmmaking had been born – and the Titanic would play a pivotal role in its development over the years.
Titanic on screen
Titanic sinking on the morning of 15 April 1912.

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Titanic on screen
James Cameron's blockbuster 'Titanic' garnered over $2 billion after its 1997 release.

The Edwardian era marked a period of technological transformations, among which included a curious new novelty: film.

Through this new method of storytelling, the Titanic would continue to live on in popular imagination. Just one month after the sinking, Dorothy Gibson – a Titanic survivor and silent film actress – would star in the first ever film about the disaster, Saved from the Titanic. The film was shot at a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey and featured the actress wearing the same clothes from the night Titanic sank (a white evening dress and a long sweater). Saved from the Titanic was released internationally and received mixed audience responses. Some criticised it for capitalising off the recent disaster. One critic went so far as to call the film ‘revolting, especially when the horrors of the event are so fresh in mind’. The same year, two more Titanic films were released: La Hantise and In Nacht Und Eis, both of which survive to this day. Sadly, Gibson’s film was lost in a studio fire in 1914. Yet, Titanic’s long and enduring place in cinema was only beginning. In fact, over a century later the story of the Titanic disaster has been told and retold countless times in film and television. IMDb has registered more than 30 films on the subject, ranging from documentaries, to love stories, to television mini-series’. Although Saved From Titanic was lost, the disaster genre of filmmaking had been born – and the Titanic would play a pivotal role in its development over the years. In 1929, Edwald André Dupont released the first sound-film about the subject, titled Atlantic. Purportedly, the White Star Line refused to allow Dupont to use the name ‘Titanic’, so a fictionalised ship, ‘Atlantic’, was concocted. In Dupont’s film, the Atlantic sinks after the colliding with an iceberg; only women and children are evacuated due to a shortage of lifeboats. At the film’s climax, passengers gather to sing Nearer my God to Thee (believed to have been the final hymn played aboard Titanic) as the ship goes under. Then in 1943, Joseph Goebbels used the Titanic to produce the most expensive propaganda film ever made. Costing a staggering $180 million dollars when adjusted for inflation, ‘Nazi Titanic’, as some have called it, depicts an arrogant British society, consumed by capitalist greed. The film’s director, Herbert Selpin, used a German ocean liner, Cap Arcona as his set. In a tragic twist of fate, Cap Aronca was sunk in the Second World War’s final days with over 4,000 people on board – a tragedy that eclipsed the real-life Titanic disaster, but which remains relatively unknown today. Most of the people onboard Cap Aronca were concentration camp inmates. The 1950s saw a resurgence in widespread interest in the Titanic. In 1955, Walter Lord published his enormously successful non-fiction book, A Night to Remember, drawing from his interviews with 63 survivors. In 1958, A Night to Remember was adapted into a critically acclaimed film of the same title, directed by Roy Ward Baker and produced by William MacQuitty. MacQuitty had claimed a personal connection to the Titanic. In May 1911, he personally witnessed the launch of the ill-fated liner in his hometown of Belfast. It was an event he would remember vividly for the rest of his life. A Night to Remember focuses heavily on the perspectives of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, played by Kenneth Moore. Historians and survivors alike have praised the film for its authenticity and attention to detail. Survivor Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall worked as a technical consultant on the film – a fact that surprised his family and friends, as he had long avoided discussing the disaster. In a curious turn of events, survivor Lawrence Beesely wandered onto the set during the filming of the ship’s sinking. He never provided a reason for doing this, but it seems likely he either wanted to experience the sinking from a different perspective or he sought to atone for being one of only a handful of men to survive.
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In the ensuing decades, the last remaining survivors grew old and eventually passed away.

Still, interest in Titanic persisted with films and television dramas like Charles Walters’ The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), William Hale’s S.O.S. Titanic (1979), and Jerry Jameson’s Raise the Titanic (1980) – the latter film focusing on the fictional discovery and raising of the lost ship. In 1985, that dream was partly fulfilled when a team led by Dr. Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic wreck 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. The discovery shed light on the modern-day conditions of the Titanic and the circumstances of her sinking. Director James Cameron was so fascinated by the prospect of visiting the wreck that he propositioned Twentieth Century Fox to bankroll a deep dive expedition, so long as he agreed to produce a film using footage from the dive. The result was a three-hour epic about forbidden love aboard the ill-fated ship. Titanic (1997) became the most expensive film at the time, costing more than $200 million to produce. The production required Cameron to build a near-scale replica of the Titanic, plunging the set and the actors into massive tanks of frigid water. The gamble paid off and Titanic became the highest grossing film ever produced by 1997, garnering over $2.2 billion worldwide, and launching actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio to stardom. The film also won a record eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1997. Yet, only two survivors, Eleanor Johnson Shuman and Michel Navratil, watched the film – both of whom were too young to recall the actual sinking. The youngest and last remaining survivor, Milvina Dean, refused to see Cameron’s Titanic after having had nightmares from watching A Night to Remember years earlier. More recently, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes produced a four-part TV mini-series on the disaster to commemorate its centenary in 2012. Additionally, an interactive videogame, Titanic: Honor and Glory offers the chance of a virtual walkthrough of Titanic’s interiors. Viewers also have the option to watch a simulation of the sinking in real-time with historical commentary. Still, one question lingers. Why do we remain fascinated by a century-old tragedy? So enticing is the Titanic wreck that in 2023 five passengers aboard an experimental submarine lost their lives after the vessel imploded, demonstrating that the lost liner continues to challenge safety standards. No one from Titanic is alive anymore, but somehow her legacy remains deeply woven into our collective psyche. Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the films that retell this harrowing story. Each Titanic film has a central common theme: tragedy. In Titanic’s brief life, she epitomised an era defined by class and status. She was, above all, a symbol of pride in an age where humankind believed itself to be invincible. Yet, for all that this ship represented, even the wealthiest men onboard were unable to save themselves. The rich and the poor perished together, and in the aftermath of tragedy a legend was born – Titanic came to represent the consequences of man’s folly in waning years of an age of optimism and triumph. As the Edwardian era ended, Titanic offered one final glimpse of a dream never to be fulfilled. Over the next century, countless filmmakers would create their own versions of this story – a story that remains as fresh in 2024 as it was in 1912.
Titanic on screen
Titanic Bow Wreck
Titanic on screen

Alex Sessa

Alex Sessa is a Historian and political commentator. He holds a PhD in History and Holocaust Studies from the University of Southampton. His work examines history, memory, and the emergence of extremist ideologies.
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