The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of those reliable touchstones that can always be used as a time-keeper for historical fiction. Although only the fifth most deadly shipwreck of all time, it is undeniably the most famous. The drama of one of the most expensive, "unsinkable" nautical marvels of its time going down on its maiden voyage has a definite attraction for filmmakers looking to cash in on the public's endless fascination with the 1912 tragedy, and the combination of low-brow dramatists and one of the most heavily documented (yet sparsely attended) events in history has led to a long tradition of getting it all wrong.
This Sunday marks the hundredth anniversary of the Titanic's sole voyage, and in honor of the calamitous centennial the Denver Public Library is hosting a Titanic Survivors Brunch, celebrating the 706 of the Titanic's passengers who lived to tell the tale. Only two of those survivors are still alive today -- and both were too young at the time to have any memory of the event.
To set the record straight for them and everyone else, here are the top five Titanic film flubs.
From a collection of silent films to a Nazi propaganda revision that casts the English as villains and a fictional German officer as the hero, five films retelling the Titanic story had been released before this big-budget epic was produced. The historical drama had an all-star cast headed by Robert Wagner and Barbara Stanwyck, and cinephiles awarded it an Academy Award for best original screenplay. But fans of the Titanic tragedy (as strange a designation as that may seem) pointed out a number of inaccuracies in the film, from the petty (there were no horns in the Titanic band; the watertight doors did not slide horizontally) to the consequential (the boilers did not explode as the film suggests; the Titanic was not booked to capacity) to the quizzical (why were Titanic crew members wearing British Navy uniforms?).
A Night to RememberHailed by the New York Times
the night after its premiere as "as fine and convincing an enactment as anyone could wish,"A Night to Remember
has been regarded as the most accurate of the dozen Titanic films -- though even this adaptation of the heavily researched book of same name has a few pimples for catty historians to squeeze. The opening of the film boasts a great ceremony where the cruise liner was christened with a bottle of champagne; not only was there no christening of the Titanic, but when the ship launches a few scenes later, the footage is actually borrowed from the launching of theRMS Queen Elizabeth.
Not wanting to follow in the footsteps of previous cinematic shit-the-beds, James Cameron did exhaustive research prepping forTitanic
, even taking an undersea voyage to the wreck (a luxury that pre-1985 filmmakers were not afforded). The three-hour epic has earned its place as the definitive Titanic film; for years the only flaw historians could find was that it was not sunny when the Titanic launched, and that Leonardo DiCaprio couldn't have won a ticket in a hand of poker, because tickets were not transferable. That is, until theTerminator
directorreceived an e-mail from astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.
"At that time of year, in that position in the Atlantic in 1912, when Rose is lying on the piece of driftwood and staring up at the stars, that is not the star field she would have seen," Cameron toldCulture
magazine. Prepping for the release ofTitanic 3D
, Cameron wrote Tyson back, saying "All right, you son of a bitch, send me the right stars for the exact time, 4:20 a.m. on April 15th, 1912, and I'll put it in the movie."
Raise the Titanic
A cold-war thriller based on a popular novel starring the old man from Star Wars sounds like box-office gold, right? Unfortunately for financial backer Lew Grade, it wasn't; after the film bombed, making back only $7 million of its $40 million budget, Grade is said to have commented that it would have been cheaper to just lower the Atlantic. While the story is mostly fiction, the overwhelming historical error is seen in the climax when the Titanic, raised back to the ocean's surface, appears to be intact -- not split in two as so many survivors of the tragedy had maintained. The film predates the 1985 deep-sea expedition to investigate the ship's remains.
With James Cameron's just around the bend, the production of this made-for-TV ABC mini-series was rushed. Known as the first Titanic film to show the ocean liner breaking in half -- making it one step ahead of the previous cinematic sinker -- this detail is pretty much where the historical accuracies end and the wild liberties begin. Not even a collection of some of the greatest talent in Hollywood -- Catherine Zeta-Jones, Eva Marie Saint, Tim Curry and George C. Scott -- could mask the stench of the film's factual faux-pas. Before drowning as the Titanic sank, Captain Edward John Smith was a highly respected, highly decorated commander, but you wouldn't know it from George C. Scott's performance here. Not only does Scott allow a female passenger to steer the ship (passengers were not even allowed on the bridge), but he bizarrely rants about how the distress rockets should have been red and not white (white was the appropriate color) and describes the CQD call to the operator as standing for "Come Quickly Distress" when, like SOS, CQD stands for nothing. And as the Alice Cleaver character shouts, "We're all going to die!" at 11:45 p.m., you can still see light coming through the windows. The biggest error is during the credits, though, when we are told that "all attempts to raise [the Titanic] have failed." Unless the filmmakers were referring to the fictional thriller noted above, there were never
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attempts to "raise the Titanic."
The Denver Public Library's RMS Titanic Survivors Brunch begins at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 15 in the B2 Conference Center at 10 West 14th Avenue Parkway. Tickets are $20; click here for more information.