Trav S.D.’s Guide to “Titanic” Movies

Atlantic liner 'Titanic' (Br, 1912) sinking, bow first, 1912, with eight full lifeboats nearby and an iceberg in the distance_banner

Like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy that unspooled over two calendar days (the same two, in fact, April 14 and 15). The ship struck the berg late on the evening of the April 14, 1912, and finally slipped under the waves early the following morning. We’re something of a buff, and have previously written about the event itself, as well as Titanic victims W.T. Stead, Daniel Warner Marvin, and Mr. and Mrs Henry B. Harris, and survivors Molly Brown, Lady Duff-Gordon, James Achilles Harder, Dorothy Gibson,  and Jack Thayer (a distant relative). Today I thought I would give some attention to cinematic depictions of the event.

There are more Titanic movies than you may realize. (For the sake of our sanity we restrict ourselves to dramatic films. There are naturally more documentaries about it than you could count in a lifetime). Like the foundering ship itself, my list has broken itself organically into two parts. There are no less than a half dozen English language features about the disaster. I have ranked them in the order of my preference and put them at the climax in the second section.

But first, we mention a number of versions which, for various reasons, don’t compare fairly with those six. We list those ones chronologically:

Saved from the Titanic (1912)

Cinema was still in its infancy in 1912. One of the medium’s first stars was Dorothy Gibson of New Jersey’s Eclair Film Company. As it happens, Gibson and her mother were first class passengers on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. A month after the sinking, the actress played herself in the screen’s first depiction of the horrible event. In the one-reel silent film, she wore the actual clothes she had been wearing on the night of the disaster! Sadly, like almost all of Gibson’s films, Saved from the Titanic appears to be a lost film. No known copies survive.

In Nacht Und Eis, i.e. Night and Ice (1912)

This 35 minute long German film was the second to be produced; it came out in August of that year. Shot in Berlin and Hamburg, this straightforward, lean version not only survives but is available to watch on Youtube. The film has many rewards, not the least of which is period detail. The costumes and settings are the best you will ever see in a telling of this story; in some ways, it’s the closest you can get to being there. This wasn’t the last German version of the Titanic tragedy. The subject was natural fodder for German consumption. The Germans were second only to Great Britain in shipping during the great age of ocean liners. This is why there were only ten German citizens on board the Titanic. Germans had no need to take a British liner to America; they would take a German one. At any rate, there was some undoubted sympathy for their rivals by the German public at the time (and probably some understandable schadenfreude. If that sounds like a harsh conclusion, search your own feelings about the Hindenburg!

Atlantic (1929)

Storytelling being what it is, all screen versions of this story are somewhat fictionalized. It is tempting to include this film amongst the features we’ve ranked in part two of our listicle but in the end this one is too fictionalized. As the first British version as well as the first talkie, this one had ample reason to put a little distance between itself and the real event. It was, as the modern refrain puts it, “Too Soon”. Most people connected with the tragedy were still alive and the White Star Line, still very much a going concern, would have moved heaven and earth to prevent a true, literal telling. So, in this film (based on a stage play by Ernest Raymond called The Berg) the ship is named the Atlantic, and the events are set in the present day (1929). All Titanic movies are disaster films, but being based on real events, are more often thought of more as historical drama. This one is more purely a disaster movie: it gives you the interesting perspective of being able to regard the event as a straight up story, unburdened with questions of how characterizations measure up to actual people and so forth. Its gestures of pure invention include a soothsaying psychic in a wheelchair! Yet enough of the real story remains so that we can recognize it; the conventional Titanic narrative is beginning to take shape. The band plays “Nearer My God to Thee” at the end. Everyone thinks the ship can’t sink. An elderly couple (clearly based on the Strauses) opts to stay to stay together rather than be separated. At this writing, several sections of the film are available to enjoy on Youtube.

Titanic (1943)

The aforementioned German schadenfreude is in full flower here. Josef Goebbels commissioned this Nazi propaganda film, which inserts several (fictional) heroic German nationals into the story, and emphasizes British greed and cowardice. The ship that plays the Titanic in the film, the SS Cap Arcona, flagship of the Hamburg-South American line, was later sunk by the Royal Air Force, with three times the loss of life experienced by the Titanic. Sadly, the ship was full of concentration camp victims at the time. Over 5,000 people died, the second largest single-event loss-of-life of the war.

Titanic (1997)

Not a movie at all of course but a five time Tony winning Broadway musical with songs by Maury Yeston and book by Peter Stone. Though uniquely theatrical and even operatic in conception, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be adapted for the screen at some point! At any rate, seems worth mentioning here.

Okay, and now to play RANK THE TITANICS. In descending order:

The Titanic (1997)

While not without flaws, I have to concede that I consider this the best all-around screen version, at least the best all around movie made about the story. I think of it as a sort of a classic epic on the order of Gone with the Wind, a picture that attempts much (star crossed love story, historical drama, disaster film and documentary) and succeeds at blending them all pretty seamlessly. Relentlessly researched and lovingly rendered by director and screenwriter James Cameron, the film allows the viewer to experience both the ship and its demise with unprecedented accuracy, or at least plausible fidelity given the best available information. I gasped and exclaimed aloud many times when I saw Titanic during its first cinematic run. As spectacle it is impeccable. That said, while I think the architecture of the screenplay is nothing short of awe-inspiring, I find a good portion of the dialogue downright poor, which I reckon is the price of living in our post-literate society.There is much (perhaps everything) that is anachronistic about Jack and Rose, but there is no way this movie would have achieved that level of mass success without a cultural bridge of some sort.

Yet while the dialogue is fairly cringe-inducing, nearly every other aspect is brilliant. For someone in the know, Cameron’s legendary research is unmistakably on the screen…and not just the design of the ship, and how it sank, and so forth. He has the details accurate down to the level of WHO is standing WHERE at any given time. Oh, that’s young Jack Thayer in his pajamas. Yes, Second Officer Lightoller was the guy who organized the survivors on Collapsible B. That drunken chef with Jack and Rose on the stern just before she slips under? He was really there, even if Jack and Rose weren’t. And while the lead characters are fictional, they make possible an explication of the social divisions on the boat, and give modern audiences something to latch on to. A case can also be made that the film is excessively long, although a bloated length comports with the leviathan nature of its topic and is thematically true. A short Titanic would be a self-contradictory term, much like, as George Carlin reminds us, jumbo shrimp. 

Kate Winslet and Leonard DiCaprio were impeccably cast as the star-crossed lovers. Both were already pretty well known, but the success of this movie elevated them to the stratosphere. Nonagenarian Hollywood veteran Gloria Stuart, who was alive (though a toddler) at the time of the sinking, added magic to the proceedings as the latter day version of Winslet’s character. Billy Zane is almost always detestable; Cameron used that quality to delicious effect in this movie (“What a little minx it is!” he hisses, referring to Rose, his ostensible fiance). David Warner is Zane’s loathesome Man Friday and fixer. Frances Fisher, best known at the time from the Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven (1992) is Rose’s hard and striving mother. Bill Paxton as a documentarian/deep sea scavenger is a kind of stand-in for Cameron himself and a “Virgil” for the audience. And then there are the real life characters. Kathy Bates as the Unsinkable Molly Brown was one of my favorite parts of the movie (“I don’t understand a one of you. What’s the matter with ya? It’s your men out there!” Makes me bawl every time). Victor Garber is lovable as the ship’s Scottish architect Thomas Andrews. Jonathan Hyde is the literal mustache twirling villain Bruce Ismay. BBC all-star (later Theoden in Lord of the Rings) Bernard Hill is Captain E.J. Smith. Col. Archibald Gracie, who later wrote an important first hand-account of the sinking, is played by Bernard Fox, who may be best known to Americans as Dr. Bombay on Bewitched, but had earlier been in the previous best Titanic movie A Night to Remember, so we’ll pivot now to that.

A Night to Remember (1958)

I only saw this one for the first time a few years ago, but it instantly became my near-favorite. Based on Walter Lord’s eponymous book, which is the Titanic Bible among mainstream buffs, this version focuses tightly on the perspective of Second Officer Charles Lightholler, the most senior officer to survive the disaster, here sympathetically portrayed by Kenneth More. Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall was a technical adviser on the production, as well. Based on first hand accounts, this version more than any other steers clear of the iceberg of fictionalization. It’s the stories of the real people. Beyond that virtue, I find the dialogue to be very smartly written, probably the best of any Titanic movie. It was also the most expensive British film ever made until that point. It shows up on screen. The special effects were very good, and some of the shots were later recycled in other films. As a Yank, I only know a couple of the cast members other than More. A young David McCallum played wireless operator Harold Bride. Bernard Fox, previously mentioned, plays a look out. And Sean Connery was an extra in the film!

S.O.S. Titanic (1979)

I especially loved the script for this made-for-TV version. It was penned by James Costigan, who was known for his expertise in handling historical material; he’d also written Eleanor and Franklin, Love Among the Ruins, and a couple of TV movies about F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first version of the story to be shot in color, this one also stresses the real characters. I also liked Billy Hale’s direction, which had many memorable shots, and impressive special effects, as good or better than the Irwin Allen stuff of the time. And the borderline cheesy cast only gives it disaster movie panache. David Janssen plays John Jacob Astor. Cloris Leachman is Molly Brown. A young Helen Mirren is a stewardess. Susan Saint James plays a fictional love interest to David Warner, who plays the real life Lawrence Beesely. (Warner would later appear as a villain in Cameron’s Titanic. That’s TWICE he had to get his clothes wet!). One of this version’s more compelling elements: in this one White Star executive Bruce Ismay (Ian Holm) is not a clear villain, in fact he is quite likable and ingratiating until the crucial moment of evacuation when he becomes the familiar cad. I rather liked this element — I could see making this as a Greek style tragedy with Ismay as the main character.

Titanic (1953)

This was my first Titanic film, and the classic most of us in America lived with for many years before new ones were attempted. It was the first Hollywood version, and used to be shown on TV from time to time. In the advent of several subsequent tellings it increasingly becomes apparent how bizarre this one is, its imagined story so singular that it seems to want to be another movie. It’s all about the marital problems of a wealthy couple played by Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, and revelations about the paternity of their young son. Robert Wagner, Richard Basehart, and Thelma Ritter also played fictional characters, although Ritter’s is clearly based on Molly Brown. But the crew characters and the details of the sinking are all taken from history, sorta. Brian Aherne plays Captain Smith! And Mae Marsh has a cameo!

Titanic (2012)

A centennial version written by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, Gosford Park), this was a four part made-for-television mini-series. Fellowes was obviously the right man to talk about the Upstairs-Downstairs aspect of the Titanic story, but I found myself disappointed. It’s not the slam dunk on the topic one would expect from this writer. Additionally, the special effects are cheap and stage-bound. (A good bit of the budget seems to have been spent on locations for flashbacks, a misplaced gamble.) The best known cast member is Linus Roache of Law and Order, playing the fictional Hugh, Earl of Manton. We were especially amused by Fellowes’ employment of the old melodrama device of reviving Roache’s dead body with a drop of brandy after he gets prematurely tossed in the drink.

Titanic (1996)

This two part tv movie miniseries is far and away my least favorite screen version. No contest! A cheese-fest in every way but a good way. It easily possesses the worst writing of any Titanic movie. At its heart is a boring romance between the vapid Peter Gallagher and Catherine Zeta-Jones. George C. Scott looks the part as Captain Smith, but he is entirely too ferocious when things go bad. He just can’t keep himself from snarling, I guess! Roger Rees is very well cast as Bruce Ismay, one of the film’s better elements. A subplot with knavish Tim Curry as a thieving crew member is one of the movie’s funner aspects (although the rape subplot is WAY off mission). A subplot concerning real life governess Alice Cleaver was one of the better script elements but the actress playing her (Izabella Urbanowicz) is terrible, and the actors playing her employers the Allisons are forgettable in their roles. See this film by all means, but see it last. 

Okay this concludes our little survey. I’m looking forward to the next screen version — I hope it’s the musical.