Why, 106 years later, we are still fascinated by the sad story of when that great ship went down
It’s April and the anniversary of the sinking of the ship that couldn’t sink is here once more — and, judging by the number of movies and cable documentaries about it, the ship also refuses to disappear from our collective consciousness.
The story of the ill-fated Titanic has long had a pull on our imaginations, and why shouldn’t it? It’s like Nazis and sharks. Seventy-three years after the Third Reich breathed its last, movies, novels and television consistently return to thugs in SS uniforms for villains.
Long before “Jaws,” sharks were a constant in every pirate movie, South Sea adventure movie and melodramatic television show on the planet. After “Jaws,” well, just think “Shark Week.”
April 1912 was a long time ago, yet the story of the Titanic lingers. I think there are a lot of reasons why. The story has glamour, pathos, hubris and everything human drama requires (except a Greek chorus).
The ship was a microcosm of the English and American class systems of its era. It carried the extremely wealthy and the Irish (in steerage, of course). It was one very large metaphor on so many levels and a real-life melodrama played out in real time.
Now, 106 years later, we still can’t get enough of her. A Titanic exhibit on display at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley had to be extended more than once, and cable TV presents semi-regular showings of all manner of Titanic specials, speculating on new information and new data gleaned from more refined and capable computer models and mountains of archival information, germinating new theories of what happened that cold night in the North Atlantic.
Every special and every movie has the same ending, though: the boat sinks.
I’m not a big fan of the James Cameron blockbuster film “Titanic” for a lot of reasons. First, my general character default (or fault, as the case may be) is one of contrarianism.
If everybody loves something, I’m reluctant to join in. I confess this is not a defensible position, but I’m holding fast to my lower opinion of the Cameron “Titanic.”
Frankly, I just didn’t care that our surviving heroine was liberated from the shackles of cultural expectations so she could ride horses and fly airplanes with abandon, and it always bothered me that there seemed to be plenty of room for Jack on that piece of flotsam that Rose was reclining on at the end.
Full disclosure: I have always been a bit of a Titanic geek. Sir Walter Lord’s book “A Night to Remember” — whose tattered paperback edition I found at the St. Elizabeth School Library when I was in the sixth grade — was one of the first “big” books I ever finished cover to cover, and helped jumpstart my lifelong love of reading.
That book and its subsequent British movie adaptation were not interested in fictional love stories or any other composite characters to help move the story along. The facts sufficed.
Decades of scientific advancement and research have proved Sir Walter Lord got some things wrong, such as the ship breaking in two and the fact that the cause of the sinking was a series of small holes rather than one huge gash, but in total, the book remains a “must” in any Titanic aficionado’s library.
If you insist on adding melodrama to your Titanic consumption this April, I strongly suggest the 1953 20th Century Fox version, cleverly titled “Titanic,” starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.
The Leonardo DiCaprio-Kate Winslet version won 10 Oscars; the 1953 only one. But I believe it is a much stronger movie with a much more adult, real and moving story line.
In the 1953 film, the pending loss of the ocean liner is the backdrop to another kind of disaster: the dissolution of a marriage and the real pain and destruction infidelity can harvest. Webb and Stanwyck are a husband and wife whom we watch break apart before our eyes.
The collateral damage of an innocent boy caught in the middle and the dialogue that is exchanged (its sole Oscar was for the screenplay) will break your heart, but it makes it not only an engrossing film but one that explores the spiritual themes of sin, forgiveness, mercy and sacrifice.
It may be hard to find, but worth the effort this April for fellow traveling Titanic geeks seeking to revisit the frigid North Atlantic that night 106 years ago.
Just be aware: the boat still sinks.