Unsinkable interest in tragic tale of Titanic

Paul Byrnes April 07, 2012

Retelling will go on ... RMS Titanic begins its disastrous descent in James Cameron's epic.

Retelling will go on ... RMS Titanic begins its disastrous descent in James Cameron's epic.

A slew of films and two mini-series have been made on its ill-fated voyage, each with its own culturally specific imprimatur.

The ship did not float, but Titanic movies are unsinkable. They go on and on, like the song in James Cameron's 1997 film. There have been 12 feature films in the sound era, three silents, four made-for-TV versions and two multi-part mini-series, the latest of which airs this month on Australian TV. That was written by Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), who rights some of the wrongs of Cameron's version - specifically the smear of Will Murdoch, the first officer who shoots himself in the head when the loading of lifeboats gets ugly. There is scant evidence for that and Murdoch's relatives were outraged that Cameron would suggest it.

The style and intent of these productions are hugely different and culturally specific. The Italians have made three animated versions, two of which are sequels. Sequels? That takes some ingenuity, given that the ending of version one was presumably somewhat final. The most infamous film is the Nazi version, made in 1943 to show the perfidy of the English capitalists afloat, especially ''Sir'' Bruce Ismay. Goebbels backed the project, then banned it when he realised the German people were in no mood for more disasters.

The history of Titanic films is like the history of the RMS Titanic itself - laced with beautiful women, ambitious men, intrigue, human frailty, corruption and dishonour. The first film was released 29 days after the sinking, and is now lost. It starred the American beauty Dorothy Gibson, who survived the sinking. She was a chorus girl who was starting to make it big in pictures, notably Hands Across the Sea in '76, made in 1911 (oh, the irony). In Saved from the Titanic, she wore the same dress in which she boarded lifeboat #7, a white silk evening gown with a cardigan and a polo coat. She was having an affair with her producer, Jules Brulatour, who would co-found Universal Pictures. A year later she killed a pedestrian while driving Brulatour's sports car in New York. Her survival was hard luck for the pedestrian.

The first sound version, from 1929, was called Atlantic because the White Star Line sued to stop the use of the name Titanic. It was a British production, directed by a distinguished German, E.A. Dupont. The sound and acting are primitive but it established several tropes: the toffs are mostly tipsy, infidelity abounds, arrogance propels the ship and all the corruption of the world is swept away by a cruel sea. The iceberg is tiny on screen, despite someone crying ''It's as big as the rock of Gibraltar!''

Religion provides the rivets in Titanic movies. It's not just that people pray when they are about to die, it's sown into the fabric of the story, because Titanic is about the undoing of men who try to play God. ''The ship is unsinkable'' screamed the newspapers, so nature, or a vengeful deity, smotes them. Hubris and greed sink the ship - the iceberg is just a tool. This idea has a powerful hold on us.

There has been a Titanic movie in every decade since the disaster, except for the 1930s, and all of them preach. There was to be one in 1939 that might have been the greatest. David O. Selznick hired Alfred Hitchcock to direct. Selznick considered buying the Leviathan, an American ship due to be scrapped in New Jersey. He wanted to tow it through the Panama Canal to Hollywood and sink it for the cameras. Hitch made Rebecca instead, and Selznick almost burned down Hollywood making Gone with the Wind.

Joseph Goebbels ran the German film industry, as Reich Minister of Propaganda. Titanic (1943) is a fairly crude and inaccurate hatchet job on the English, in which the only good characters are a fictional German officer called Petersen (Hans Nielsen), who tries to force Ismay (E.F.Furbringer) to slow down, and a couple of love-struck German crew-members. The director was Herbert Selpin, who had done valuable service to the Nazi propaganda effort with his anti-Semitic film Carl Peters. Selpin did not complete Titanic. He was arrested by the Gestapo for making derogatory remarks about the naval officers seconded to the film. Goebbels interrogated him. The next day, Selpin was found hanged in his cell. Another casualty of the Titanic, albeit indirectly.

The golden age is perhaps the 1950s, at least in a dramatic sense. Cameron's film is by far the most spectacular, and the only one with footage of the wreck, but the films made in 1953 and 1958 are dramatic and less bombastic. The 1953 American version has Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb in a bitter fight for the loyalty of their children: he's a wealthy snob, she's an American heartland girl. Richard Basehart plays a whiskey priest and Robert Wagner is a preppy college boy. The film is by Jean Negulesco and it shows the power of Titanic narrative to turn good men bad and bad men good. The priest rediscovers his purpose, the caddish snob becomes noble, then drowns. Cameron lifted a lot from this, and even more from A Night To Remember, directed by Roy Ward Baker.

A Night To Remember is the Titanic buffs' favourite because it's the most accurate. Kenneth More plays second officer Charles Lightoller as a cheerful, polo-necked hero. The film concentrates heavily on the response, or lack of it, from other ships, particularly the Californian, whose lights can be seen from Titanic. The Californian does nothing, a controversy that still rages. Cameron ignored it. This is the first version based largely on eyewitness accounts, taken from Walter Lord's eponymous book. The film has Benjamin Guggenheim proclaiming: ''We have dressed now in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.'' Sound familiar? What about ''Aren't you going to try for it, Mr Andrews?'' Sean Connery plays a deckhand and Honor Blackman flaunts jewels.

Producer William MacQuitty saw the real ship launched as a small boy in Belfast. He had a hard time finding a ship that would let him film. He rented one that was being wrecked on the Clyde River. The port side was already demolished but not the starboard, so they filmed only on that side. The ship was the SS Asturias, built in 1925 at Harland and Wolff shipyard, birthplace of the Titanic. From 1946 to 1952, the Asturias brought 25,000 Ten Pound Poms to Australia.

Titanic 3-D is in cinemas now.

Follow Paul Byrnes on Twitter @ptbyrnes.

Most viewed