By Lisa Penza
In 1997 I was 15 years old. I remember sitting in the theater waiting to see a movie that, for me, had been six years too late. Titanic was the movie event that capped an obsession I’d had since I was a child, and had first picked up Robert D. Ballard’s book Exploring the Titanic (Ballard led the expedition that found the sunken wreck in 1985). The haunting pictures had captivated me and started a lifelong love of a tragic event that has endured in our hearts and minds for years.
Fast forward some 15 years and we are coming on to a monumental experience for both fans of the movie and those of the event itself. This month, Titanic will be gracing movie screens once again, this time in 3D (did we really expect anything less from the man who put 3D on the map with Avatar?). Even more significantly, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, which still remains one of the most important historical events of the past century.
The enduring significance of the story can be seen many ways. It was a tale of hubris, of man’s perceived achievements and a horrific reminder of the reality – a lesson which cost some 1,517 people their lives. It was an ironically avoidable disaster, with a hundred things gone wrong; from lack of lifeboats by design, straight to the fact that the men in the crow’s nest were without binoculars that fateful night of April 14th. It was a disaster that took the lives of people from all walks of life, most notably the highest of high society and well-known individuals who went down with the ship: John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Ida and Isador Strauss (owner of Macy’s in Herald Square), military aide to Teddy Roosevelt, Major Archibald Butt, to name a few (J.P. Morgan even had a suite on the ship, but illness kept him on land and consequentially saved his life). Among the survivors were even more illustrious individuals: silent screen star Dorothy Gibson, Margaret “Molly” Brown, fashion designer Lady Duff Gordon, controversially White Star Line owner J. Bruce Ismay and many more incredible tales.
These stories of the people and their circumstances, are what keep us turning to this event. James Cameron, however, has captured our hearts in another way with the story of two star crossed lovers on the doomed ship – Jack and Rose – the modern day Romeo and Juliet, their fates not falling so short of a Shakespearean ending. Jack is your third class boy, Rose is your first class gal. She’s dazzled by his joie de vivre, he’s in love with her passion and intelligence – do I really need to tell you what this movie is about?
As much as I love the movie, it’s not without its inaccuracies, which Cameron himself has recently discussed. For instance, a third class passenger would never have had access to the first class section, making the love story impossible. We don’t look to these movies for history, though, and the story of Jack and Rose entertains while giving us a look at what actually did happen from April 10th, when the ship left Southampton for Cherbourg and Queensland, before heading east and finding its final destination at the bottom of the Atlantic in those early morning hours of April 15th. Much of what is depicted in the film comes straight from eye witness accounts. However, there are still discrepancies and questions. Did First Officer Murdoch shoot himself? His family claims not, but this is a mystery that seems will forever lie with the ship under the leagues. We may never know every true detail, but the movie transports us to the time and place almost to the last detail. I know I am enraptured from the moment the iceberg strikes through the final glimpse of the bow as it goes under.
In the 15 years since the movie, new details have emerged which I find the most fascinating. One of the most emotionally loaded scenes in the film is of third class passengers who are locked out of the upper decks where there was hope of being saved. It’s become clear, in recent excursions (many of which have been manned by James Cameron himself) that this may not have been the case. While there were locked areas that kept the third class passengers from the upper classes, they were not kept behind gates while the ship sank. More likely, it was language barriers for many who were emigrating to the United States and the confusing layout of the bowels of the ship which kept them from reaching the decks. Sadly, even if they had made it, there still weren’t enough lifeboats for half of them. For too many, their fates were sealed the moment they set foot on that ship.
One thing the movie gets absolutely right is one of the first things uttered by centurion Rose: “Titanic was called the ship of dreams.” It was. It was the biggest and most opulent ship on the White Star Line, which was leading the way in cross-Atlantic travel with its newest leviathan. The first class accommodations were unmatched in luxury, the second were what one would find in first on other liners and third class was almost an entirely new concept; most liners third class accommodations were steerage which amounted to large rooms for many to share in the bowels of the ship. It was a ship created to herald in the modern era, to bring hundreds to their new home and opportunities in the new world, when immigration to the US was at its peak. Instead, it sent most of them to a watery grave in an entirely avoidable disaster on a ship that was doomed from the moment the first rivet hit steel.
I will be joining the crowds for the rerelease of Titanic and enjoying this incredible story in 3D. I can’t wait to relive the love story, among the many other stories that ship has to tell. For the romantics who can’t get enough of Jack and Rose’s tragic story, I highly recommend the book Titanic Love Stories, a collection of stories of the 13 honeymooning couples on board. Fact and fiction can mingle so effortlessly to tell the tale of an “unsinkable” wonder, who’s foundering became the lesson for everyone after. We will never forget Titanic, and on its 100th anniversary, April 14th, I’ll be in the theater at 11:40pm, exactly the time an iceberg changed the Titanic’s course forever.