Original release: December 19th 1997
Running time: 194 minutes
Writer and director: James Cameron
Composer: James Horner
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, salve Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Kathy Bates
The sinking of the Titanic: 02:37:11 to 02:44:55
Titanic. They called her the ship dreams and to many, she was. Until that fateful night of April 15th, 1912 when the unsinkable ship struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, and sank. Since then she’s come to mean many different things to many different people; the embodiment of the overstuffed opulence of the Edwardian era, a cautionary tale about the folly of arrogance or simply the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history where 1,517 souls lost their lives in one night.
It’s a story we all know so well but it wasn’t until James Cameron’s 1997 film that many of us actually experienced the majestic ship for ourselves, together with her final moments. Director Roy Ward Baker had already envisioned Titanic’s maiden voyage in A Night to Remember (1958) and so did William Hale with S.O.S. Titanic (1979) but even though Cameron’s version focused on a pair of fictional star-crossed, ill-fated lovers, Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonard DiCaprio), his film aimed to show how the colossal ship really went down. It would be something we had never seen before.
With his 3 hour epic leading up to that moment, Cameron takes us on a breathtaking journey on the infamous ship of dreams, beginning first with an aural experience instead of a visual one, as James Horner’s score opens the film over a black screen for brief seconds before the first image appears.
Indeed, it is a moment of reflexivity as the director shooting the shot is in the shot shooting another shot, Titanic is the object of a layered representation. This and so many other scenes makes it a rewarding and thrilling experience, but of course, none more so than the moment millions of moviegoers around the world were waiting to see. Yet to see it unfold with Rose and Jack’s story together with its bitter class war between the haves and have-nots, gives a human face to an unimaginable tragedy.
They say that in times like these we often see the best in people and but in Titanic’s final moments we see not only the best, but also the worst. With 2224 passengers divided by class, staff and steerage, some of them accept their fate nobly, others try to help those they see in need, one or two might even sacrifice themselves for the greater good but there are also the cowardly and the greedy among them.
As the danger of the ship sinking dawns on those on board, they try to reach the lifeboats. Unfortunately for Third Class passengers (706 men, women and children) they found the gates to the lifeboat docks locked and as a result many of them were launched either empty or at less than half capacity.
With its tremendous visual and special-effects, Cameron’s depiction of this maritime disaster is truly on an apocalyptic scale as we see titanic beginning to take in water. The ship’s stern lifts out of the water as the bow sinks beneath the surface and people are seen scrambling to reach safety but plummeting to their deaths. Rose and Jack are seen in the midst of this chaos making their way to the spot where they first met and as Rose recalls this life-changing moment while experiencing another, she looks at Jack and does what seems only crazy and right to do in such a predicament, she smiles. He kisses her forehead and grabs her close, bracing her as we brace ourselves for the next shattering moment in Titanic’s short life.
Higher and higher the stern rises until Titanic stands almost completely vertical in the water but then it does what we never saw it do in previous Titanic films. The ship doesn’t glide gracefully into the murky depths of the ocean and from what we learned when the wreck was finally discovered on September 1st, 1985 by Jean-Louis Michel and Dr. Robert Ballard, Titanic’s last minutes were truly terrifying.
Those lucky enough to have made it to the lifeboats watch in disbelief as the lights on Titanic flicker and then go out. The ship groans painfully and then its boards begin tearing away, the metal bends and rips, cables snap and everything comes loose at the centre as Titanic tears itself in two.
The floors buckle and the stern, with Rose, Jack and countless others holding on for dear life, smashes back down onto those trying desperately to swim away in the freezing water. Its last remaining funnels fall and roll over into the water but now the bow, taking on much more water, begins to descend again, only this time much more violently.
As it goes under, it begins to pull the stern down with it. Jack and Rose are now climbing to outside part of the ship to hold on for as long as they can. Titanic now stands completely vertical and still for 40 seconds its chilling final descent. I remember counting the seconds and not being able to breathe. The experience was on such a visceral level that I returned to the cinema 3 more times during the film’s initial release to see if it would feel the same, and it did. And still does.
Watching as they plunge into the ocean and knowing there’s nothing left to hold on to…
Looking back on the story Cameron tells with Titanic and the way it’s crafted with so many layers but always coming back to Rose’s story as she narrates it, I felt moved by this tragic story. Seeing Rose and Jack’s relationship blossom and break through the class barriers, seeing her break down her own inhibitions and become truly free from her stifling and repressive mother, it’s all the more affecting when we see her whole world lost in a matter of minutes before our eyes.
It will very soon be 100 years since Titanic’s sinking. As she remains submerged in her watery bed for the rest of eternity, who knows the countless other stories she took with her that night. They will never be told, they will never be heard, but they will certainly be felt with this film, not just with its sinking but probably more so in that splendid heavenly vision Rose has at the end. Titanic restored in its glory awaits her. She ascends its grand staircase, looked on by at 2224 passengers no longer divided but united, and at the top, waiting for her is Jack.
He extends his hand; they embrace and kiss as Titanic erupts in joyous applause, finally celebrating their love. We’re blinded by light before the picture dissolves before us, like Titanic itself.
Keller, A James Cmaeron (2006) Routledge Film Guidebooks
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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