Titanic (1997) Review – A Proper Epic

I’m not sure if this revelation is going to be a surprise or not but… I love Titanic. It is the only chick flick that I can sit through without feeling sick and there are several totally believable reasons for that. Whenever I say to someone that I love Titanic, I watch their eyes roll around in their head and listen to the response ‘Well you would, wouldn’t you’. Yes it’s true. I am a girl and I do love Titanic but I don’t just love it for the ‘love story’ that’s packed into every film by law. Normally, a love interest plot is there either as some kind of ultimate goal or something for the girls whilst the boys enjoy the juicy action. But in this case, the whole story is a love story when a bloody great big ship isn’t sinking. Anyone reading this will know the plot but let’s have a brief rundown anyway.

Initially taking place in 1996, Brock Lovett (the late Bill Paxton) dives down to the wreck of the Titanic. He searches through the wreck to find a safe which he believes contains a valuable necklace. Having brought it to the surface, the safe doesn’t contain the necklace but some rotted papers and a drawing of a nude lady wearing the necklace. The lady in the picture, 100 year old Rose Dawson Calvert (Gloria Stuart) gets in contact with Lovett and convinces him that she was on the Titanic the night that it sank. Having been brought on board the Russian research vessel ‘Keldysh’ with her granddaughter, Lizzy (Suzy Amis), she proceeds to tell her story which consists of love, loss, heartbreak and ultimately, disaster.

What’s clear right from the get-go is that this is a character driven film. It centers around Rose and the story of her journey on the Titanic which is told through flashbacks to 1912. Of course ‘Dawson-Calvert’ is not her real name. The flashbacks that take us to 1912 feature a 17 year old Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) as she boards the Titanic in South Hampton with her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher) and her 30 year old fiancee, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Rose has been forced into this engagement by her mother as marrying such a rich man will keep her debt-ridden family in finery for years to come. Rose’s life is very much controlled and she’s desperate to break free. Her desperation leads her to attempt to throw herself off the back of the ship but she is saved at the last minute by a very special young man, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Having won his ticket to the Titanic in a poker game, Jack boards with his friend, Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) with the hopes of going back home to America. Jack is an artist who uses his talent to make a bit of money and keeps moving around, never staying in one place for too long. When he meets Rose, he becomes infatuated with her. ‘Love at first sight’ I believe is the term. Just as Rose starts getting into Jack as well, her mother steps in to put a stop to it by any means necessary.

Obviously, at the start of any film, the main characters are a mystery but as ‘Titanic’ progresses, the audiences begin to see much more of Rose (in more ways than one) than the uptight, spoiled, rich girl that she’s initially is portrayed to be and that’s after meeting Jack. Because Cal believes that Jack saved Rose from falling over the edge of the ship, Jack is invited to a first class dinner. In return, Jack takes Rose down into the lower decks of the ship to show her how the third class passengers throw a party. Rose begins to show her true colours and she’s actually having fun with the dancing and the smoking and the drinking. But all this fun comes at a price via an intense encounter with Cal and a roasting by her mother.

There’s an interesting scene around mid-way through the film where Rose is having lunch with her mother and she looks over to see a little girl all dressed up having tea with her own mother. Rose watches the little girl delicately place a napkin on her lap and her mother adjust her posture. Rose realises that this is her life, rigorously controlled, and goes to find Jack. This leads to the popular ‘I’m Flying’ scene where Jack and Rose have their first kiss on the bow of the ship. It was also featured on the movie poster.

Put simply, Jack represents everything that Rose wants to be. He’s a free spirit, not bound by any regulations or rules of conformity. He lives his life his own way and it’s also a double edged sword because being with Jack is seen as an act of rebellion by Rose’s mother. When Rose and Jack get to know each other a little better, Rose opens up a little bit more. Or a lot more… depending on how you see it.

Aside from the actual sinking, this is probably the most famous scene in the film and one of the first to be shot as the majority of the sets weren’t yet built. This scene depicts Jack sketching a nude Rose wearing the ‘Heart of the Ocean’, the necklace that Lovett is after. Altogether, it’s a rather cute sequence as Rose teases Jack whilst he’s drawing her but if you catch Rose at just the right moment, there’s a shot of her looking at Jack and the merest hint of a smile comes onto her face as if this is a moment she has waited for all her life, to be free. It becomes additionally powerful thanks to a slower rendition of the late James Horner’s magnificent score which I’ll go into in more detail later on.

Those with a keen eye will notice that the hands sketching Rose are not Leonardo DiCaprio’s hands but the hands of James Cameron who is himself an artist and still has the original drawing. It should also be noted that Cameron is left-handed and DiCaprio is right-handed so to achieve the illusion that it’s actually DiCaprio sketching the picture, Cameron drew with his left hand and then flipped the shot in post-production to make it look like DiCaprio drawing with his right hand.

‘Titanic’ does draw heavily on emotion and has some really beautiful and tear-jerking sequences such as the kiss on the bow. But along with the beauty, comes the heartbreak. I would say the most heartbreaking sequence in the film comes after the Titanic has sank and Rose is floating on a piece of wood whilst Jack hangs on to the side. In the distance, Fifth Officer Harold Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd) is leading a lifeboat back to the site to rescue any survivors. Rose sees the boat and tries to rouse Jack to tell him they are about to be rescued. But sadly, Jack has already succumbed to Hypothermia. Rose is forced to let Jack’s body sink into the ocean so she can attract the attention of the boat, keeping her promise that she would go on. ‘Go on’… get it… anyway. This sequence led audiences to ask the question, ‘Why did Jack have to die?’ This question went so far as to appear on the hit US show ‘Mythbusters’ in which the presenters proved that if Jack had secured a life preserver to the bottom of the piece of wood, it would have provided enough stability for both Jack and Rose to stay afloat. Cameron’s response to these findings was that Jack’s death was written in the script and therefore it had to happen. He also acknowledged that maybe they should have used a smaller piece of wood. Fair enough.

The main totally believable reason as to why I love ‘Titanic’ is that I know how it was made and if you go into it, it’s truly amazing.

James Cameron is a notable explorer and has dove down to the wreck of the Titanic on numerous occasions but his first time was in 1995, one year after the release of ‘True Lies’ starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. Cameron desperately wanted to shoot footage of the wreck, not such a huge feat since such footage has been filmed before. Cameron wanted the camera to be on the outside of the submersible to get uninterrupted shots of the wreck. But there was one problem. The wreck of the Titanic lies 12,000 ft below the waterline on the ocean bed and the pressure that far down is equal to 6000 pounds per square inch, enough to crush pretty much anything. In the mid 90’s, a camera did not exist that could cope with such conditions so James Cameron’s brother, Mike Cameron and Panavision created such a camera. This kind of equipment came with limitations. Whilst the camera would be able to film on the ocean floor, it could only carry 12 minutes of film and could not be reloaded underwater for obvious reasons. As a result, a model of the Titanic wreck was made along with two tiny, model submersibles to represent the submersibles that would go down on the shoot. Together with his crew and fellow sailors, Cameron planned each and every shot that would end up in the movie. Altogether, Cameron and his team dove down to the wreck an astonishing 12 times to complete the shots with each trip taking around 16 hours from dive to resurface.

Originally, the dives were only meant to film the exteriors of the wreck but some time into the project, Cameron changed tack and sent down an ROV (which I can only imagine stands for ‘Remote Operated Vehicle’) which was only meant to be used as a prop for the movie but was fully functioning. The ROV had a camera on it and could squeeze through the open spaces and into the ship, a feat that had been successfully attempted before by the man who initially discovered the wreck in 1985, Professor of Oceanography and retired United States Navy Officer, Robert Ballard.

On Cameron’s dive, the pictures from inside the Titanic provided significant reference for the details of the ship’s interior that photographs could not give. These details would be critical in the creation of the sets. One centerpiece of the film and on the actual ship was the Grand Staircase which was the main point of passage for the first class passengers. The staircase was completely destroyed during the sinking and was ripped away from the foundations, leaving a gaping hole. This hole provided access to each deck for the ROV and for the smaller bots that would be used on future dives.

With significant reference, what came next was the building of the sets. All of the interior sets used for the film such as Rose and Cal’s first class suite were built on a film set but Cameron went one step further and built a near enough full scale replica of the Titanic herself on the coast of Baja, Mexico using the original Harland and Wolff blueprints, including the four 65ft funnels. The set of the Titanic ship was built on hydraulic lifts as the replica would be used to film the sinking and would need to be lowered in and out of the water as needed. The stern (the back of the ship) would also need to be raised to a vertical position to achieve the look of the final moments of the Titanic.

Two primary tanks were used for the filming of the significant moments on the ship’s deck and the sinking itself. The replica of the Titanic was built in a ‘horizon tank’ on the coast and was filled with 17 Million gallons of water. A second tank was commissioned, holding 5 Million Gallons of water, which held various sets that would need to be flooded on camera, including the Grand Staircase. 90,000 Gallons of water was used for the sequence in which the Grand Staircase is destroyed by the torrent of water that bursts through the glass dome above. Even though the staircase was fixed to steel reinforced foundations, the force of the water ripped the solid oak staircase away from the set. On top of that, a third tank consisting of 350,000 Gallons of water was used for the post-sinking scenes.

The most critical point in the sinking is the moment where the Titanic breaks in two. The set of the ship was already built on a tilting platform and hydraulic lifts. As the bow (front of the ship) was lowered into the tank, extras portraying the passengers were required to run to the stern that was being lifted to a near vertical position. Stunt performers then were scripted to tumble down the decks as the stern was being lifted, hitting railings and some jumping over the side. After a number of minor injuries, the stunts were called to a halt and CG people were used for the more dangerous stunts.

Another aspect of the film that I totally respect is the level of historical accuracy not only from the recreation of the ship and it’s interiors but also in the characters. Jack and Rose are entirely fictional but a number of the other characters were real passengers and crew members on the Titanic. Most notable include Kathy Bates as the infamous ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown; Eric Braeden as John Jacob Astor IV, the richest man aboard the Titanic, Bernard Fox as Colonel Archibald Gracie IV, Michael Ensign as Benjamin Guggenheim and his young mistress, Madame Aubert played by Fannie Brett and Lew Palter and Elsa Raven as Isidor and Ida Straus. Isidor Straus was the former owner of R.H. Macy and Company or ‘Macys’ as it’s known.

Of course the Titanic wouldn’t have existed or gone anywhere without the designers and the crew of the luxury liner.

Victor Garber played Thomas Andrews, the Irishman who designed the Titanic and sailed with her on her maiden voyage. As his creation was sinking into the North Atlantic, Mr Andrews was last seen in the smoking room, dumbstruck that his ‘unsinkable’ ship was doomed.

Jonathan Hyde plays J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director at White Star Line, the British shipping company that owned the Titanic. It is generally thought and portrayed in the film that Mr Ismay convinced Captain Edward Smith to increase the speed of the Titanic in order to arrive in New York early and gain some positive press. Although it was portrayed this way in the movie, inquires into the sinking would argue that the conversation between Ismay and Captain Edwards never took place. After the collision with the iceberg, Thomas Andrews and Captain Edwards stayed behind but Mr Ismay boarded a lifeboat and survived the disaster. In the years afterwards, Ismay was accused of abandoning the Titanic whilst other passengers were still on board. Although inquiries and reputable testimonies denounced these allegations by bringing forward evidence that Ismay assisted numerous passengers onto lifeboats before boarding the final lifeboat off the starboard side, Ismay’s reputation never recovered.

Then of course, there’s the Captain of the Titanic. Bernard Hill played Captain Edward John Smith in the movie. Captain Smith was a well respected, decorated officer who served as master of numerous White Star Line vessels before taking command on the Titanic. At the age of 62 at the time of the maiden voyage, Captain Smith had planned for the Titanic to be his final command before retiring. In the movie, Captain Smith’s final moments show him walking into the wheelhouse as it’s being submerged just for the glass to break and he is engulfed in water. This is the most recognisable version of events but there are conflicting accounts as to how Captain Smith perished. Some accounts have him jumping from the stern of the ship, others have him in the water after the Titanic had sank and there is even an unconfirmed account of him committing suicide by shooting himself. Needless to say, no matter the manner in which he passed, Captain Smith never left the Titanic whilst his passengers were still on board. The Captain stayed with his ship to the very last second.

Arguably the most controversial portrayal of a character in the movie was that of First Officer William Murdoch played by Ewan Stuart. It was shown in the movie that when frightened passengers attempted to rush the remaining lifeboats, Murdoch drew his weapon in an attempt to hold them back. After shooting an unknown man and third class passenger, Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry), Murdoch gives one final salute and then shoots himself in the head. In reality, the true cause of Murdoch’s fate in unknown. There are reports of an officer shooting two men and possibly then himself but the officer’s identity was not confirmed. Murdoch’s depiction in the movie was disputed. The sections called into question where the acceptance of a bribe by Cal Hockley and the scene mentioned above. In response to the complaints, Cameron issued a public apology.

Cameron’s level of historical accuracy went deeper than the events of the sinking and the appearance of historically significant characters. Some of the sequences throughout the film were actually what happened on the journey such as the hymn that was sang at the church service and the ship’s priest leading desperate prayer as the Titanic was going under. The accuracy went even deeper than that. Rounded up, ‘Titanic’ has a running time of 3 hours and 15 Minutes but when counted together, all the scenes in 1912 add up to 2 Hours and 40 Minutes, the amount of time taken for the Titanic to sink.

In 2012, James Cameron appeared in a documentary for National Geographic entitled ‘Titanic: The Final Word’ in which he gathered a team which ranged from artists to historians to naval engineers to once and for all come up with a perfect digital re-creation of how Titanic sank. It’s a fascinating documentary and I would strongly suggest that anyone reading this look it up and give it a watch because Mr Cameron goes through where his $200 Million movie may have got things ever so slightly wrong. Not massively wrong. But a bit wrong. Seriously. Give it a watch. Bear in mind that Cameron’s recreation was based upon all the evidence that was best known in 1995.

‘Titanic’ was considered in itself to be a huge success but in the 20 years since the films release, one aspect of the film has taken on a life of it’s own. That aspect is the spectacular soundtrack that was composed, orchestrated and conducted by the late James Horner who passed away in 2015. The female voice heard through the movie is that of Norwegian singer, Sissel Kyrkjebø. But what gained the most adoration from the fans was the song played over the end credits. ‘My Heart Will Go On’ was composed by James Horner, lyrics by Will Jennings and performed by the sensational, Celine Dion. Initially, Cameron didn’t want a song with lyrics for the film so Mr Horner secretly wrote the song and privately approached Celine Dion and her late husband/manager, Rene Angelil. Ms Dion was initially apprehensive about performing the song but agreed to record a demo. Horner took the demo and presented it to Cameron, officially changing his mind. What’s interesting is that a demo is exactly that, a demo. A test to see if the song works, if anything needs to be added, taken away or changed in any general way. Not in this case. The demo that Celine Dion recorded was the track used at the end of the film. The song has been re-recorded since then and performed several times but that original track holds a simplicity that promotes Ms Dion’s voice which is what I want to hear the most when I listen to that song. Although the re-recorded version has more of an impact so to sum up, both versions have their own appeal to me. After the release of the movie and the single, ‘My Heart Will Go On’ became the best selling single of 1998, one of the best selling singles of all time and gained numerous notable accolades.

Since the 1997 release of ‘Titanic’, the film did return in 2012 in 3D to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy. Fans also flocked to ‘Titanic Live’ where the film was played along with a 130 piece orchestra which performed James Horner’s legendary score. At time of writing, to mark the 20th anniversary of the release of ‘Titanic’, the film will be re-released in cinemas again in both 2D and 3D for one week starting on December 1st, 2017.

With an initial budget of $125 Million, problems during Titanic’s production meant that the budget met or even exceeded $200 Million. Never the less, when released on December 19th, 1997 in the United States, ‘Titanic’ made an unbelievable $1.84 Billion worldwide making it the first film to ever pass the $1 Billion dollar mark. ‘Titanic’ held this record for 12 years until it was beaten by James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ in 2010. When ‘Titanic’ was re-released in 2012, the film gained an additional revenue of $343.6 Million worldwide making a grand total of $2.18 Billion. This figure makes ‘Titanic’ the second film to ever reach the $2 Billion mark after ‘Avatar’.

On top of being one of the most successful films financially, ‘Titanic’ also had the honor of being complemented by it’s peers at the 1998 Academy Awards. Just at the Academy Awards alone, ‘Titanic’ won 11 Oscars out of the 14 Nominations. Kate Winslet received a nomination for ‘Best Actress’, Tina Earnshaw, Greg Cannom and Simon Thompson were nominated for ‘Best Makeup’ but sadly did not win. The list of wins include; Peter Lamont and Michael D. Ford for ‘Best Art Direction’, Russell Carpenter for ‘Best Cinematography’, Deborah Lynn Scott for ‘Best Costume Design’, Conrad Buff and Richard A. Harris for ‘Best Film Editing’, Gary Rydstrom, Tom Johnson, Gary Summers and Mark Ulano for ‘Best Sound’, Tom Bellfort and Christopher Boyes for ‘Best Sound Effects Editing’ and Robert Legato, Mark A. Lasoff, Thomas L. Fisher and Michael Kanfer for ‘Best Visual Effects’.

James Horner won 2 Oscars that evening. He won ‘Best Original Dramatic Score’ and together with Will Jennings, they both won ‘Best Original Song’ for ‘My Heart Will Go On’.

As for James Cameron, he took home 3 awards. He was included for ‘Best Film Editing’ and also won ‘Best Director’. On top of all that, ‘Titanic’ won ‘Best Picture’ which he accepted along with the film’s producer, Jon Landau.

I missed out a nomination as I was saving the best for last. Gloria Stuart was nominated for an Academy Award for ‘Best Supporting Actress’. At the age of 87, this nomination made her the oldest person at the time to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. Although she didn’t win an Oscar, she did gain a Screen Actors Guild Award for her performance in ‘Titanic’. Gloria Stuart passed away in 2010 at the grand age of 100.

In my mind, there are very few films that can surpass the sheer amount of passion and respect that went into ‘Titanic’. It was made to show the horrifying scale of the tragedy, the human cost of man’s arrogance and the true show of bravery in the face of adversity. But most of all, ‘Titanic’ taught us (or taught me in any case) the most valuable lesson of all that we as the human race must never forget. Love conquers all. That’s what’s important.

It’s also important to remember that this film was made so that we would never forget that this was a real and needless tragedy that could have been avoided. The passengers on board were businessmen, dignitaries and people in search of a new life.

I decided to write this article to commemorate the 20th anniversary of a great film but also in memory of the 1500 men, women and children who lost their lives on April 15th, 1912.

3 responses to “Titanic (1997) Review – A Proper Epic

  1. That was an epic review! I don’t think it’s a bad film at all. The only thing wrong with it is the Celine Dion song. Bloody awful.


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