The ultimate disaster movie, or movie disaster, that’s how things were looking for James Cameron and his “Titanic” team in 1997 with both studio executives and critics waiting to strangle him with delight on the film’s release. Why? Well, firstly the project was stuck in production muck for a very long time, the film delayed again and again, as Cameron tinkered with his three-hour running time (20 minutes longer than it took the actual ship to sink mind) and action pieces that were quite literally sinking millions of dollars by the hundred. Just like the ocean liner 85 years earlier, “Titanic”, it seemed was going to hit the iceberg when let out into cold waters. It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic of course, but Cameron (a man infamous in Hollywood for his short temper and over-sized ego) stubbornly stuck to his guns. The rest of course is history: The highest box-office gross of all time, a position it amazingly managed to hold for over a decade, until it was dethroned by Cameron’s own “Avatar”, and one of only three films to win 11 Academy Awards. Accepting his Oscar for Best Director Cameron famously declared “I’m the King of the World!” before heading into the wilderness for a decade. For the public, as for the Academy, however what began as a love affair, has eroded a bit with the years.
The cause of this disillusionment stems largely from embarrassment at the central and very old-fashioned boy-meets-girl love story. Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater alias Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet respectively, board the Titanic in Southampton, she in first class with her uptight family and cold fiancé Cal (a wonderfully slimy Billy Zane), he a last minute passenger in third class who won his ticket in a lucky hand at Poker. They meet fatefully and, captivated by the free-spirited Jack, Rose finds herself falling in love with him. It’s all to go Cinderella were it not for a large block of ice floating somewhere in the mid-atlantic. The stories and lore of the famous ship’s sinking and the terrible loss of life are well known and retold in remarkable detail and with great passion by Cameron from his own screenplay. Some viewers and critics attacked the screenplay in particular for a failure in creating credible or period-correct exposition or for the cheesy dialogue. Indeed they have fair grounds for argument, Jack and Rose would probably not look out of place in your average episode of Coronation Street but really, this was never Cameron’s intent. “Titanic” is meant to be, first and foremost an old-style epic romance and disaster film. And Cameron directs with such gusto and style that it is extremely hard not to be swept along with the pure cinematics and just enjoy it for what it is. Think back to the famous disaster films of the 70s, the same criticism could be made of those, yet nobody does.
Once the iceberg does hit (that can’t really count as a spoiler), about one hour in, it’s highly unlikely anyone will care because at that point it becomes the best disaster film ever made. And for the (largely teenage) hearts the film has captured from the start, it becomes one giant survival struggle. Both DiCaprio and Winslet do extremely well here, keeping the focus as human as possible amidst all the carnage. They are helped by a huge supporting cast, of which each one has their own storyline to follow, and all acted to perfection: Aside from Zane’s Machiavellian Cal there’s Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates as “the unsinkable” Molly Brown, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde’s cowardly Bruce Ismay, Ewan Stewart, Ioann Gruffud, the ship’s captain played by Bernard Hill, David Warner and of course the musicians that played to the very end (real life Swiss chamber music quartet I Salonisti) as well as many more.
Cameron’s obsessive nature transpires into the action as well. The costumes and sets are all authentic down to the very last detail. It’s clear to see just where most of the money was spent especially when you consider the amount of takes required when sending all this lavish excess under water. The sheer size of the Titanic model constructed to almost life-size at the specially built Fox Studios Baja complex becomes apparent when first we see the ship moored in Southampton. From there Cameron’s shots become increasingly expansive: From wonderful aerial views of the ship, utilising the latest in computer technology to the scenes in the engine rooms where dozens of men slaved away shovelling coal while the passengers relaxed on the upper decks. And water is portrayed with particular power, the seemingly harmless liquid seeping slowly up corridors before eventually becoming this huge destructive force of nature. In this authenticity alone this “Titanic” outdoes all the foregone adaptions of the story. And the director finds a horrible beauty in the disaster as well, the “Nearer My God to Thee” sequence is likely to send shivers down your spine or bring tears to your eyes. My only criticism of the film must be of its conclusion. Once the ship has gone under, all bar one of the loose ends has been tied but Cameron presents us with an extended coda that really sprinkles on the cheese. Either the director is himself unsure of how it should end or he’s just indulging which with Cameron is a real possibility.
Composer James Horner was riding the high wave of success in the mid to late 1990s and “Titanic” presented yet another fantastic opportunity to show off his skills. Inspired by the Irish elements of the story Cameron wanted singer Enya on the soundtrack. Instead Horner employed Norwegian vocalist Sissel, creating a sort of new-age sound that is today iconic of the picture. His intentions were to create a timeless sound through his use of synthesisers and the voice coupled with a traditional orchestra. The music is broken into three stylistic parts: The first is a distinctly Irish melody written as a love theme, the second a heroic choir-based theme which would serve for the triumphs of the Titanic and thirdly the action music for the sinking. All three work exceptionally well and the first forms the basis of the end-credits song “My Heart Will Go On” as performed by Celine Dion. Famously, Cameron didn’t want a song at the film’s end but Horner went away and wrote and recorded one anyway. On album, “Titanic” became the most successful soundtrack of all time, one of the rare occasions when a soundtrack really gains mainstream popularity. Subsequently a second album was released, entitled “Back to Titanic” and featuring extra score as well as some source songs including the beautiful “Nearer My God to Thee” hymn. It won Oscars for both score and song.
Love it or hate it (some people do), “Titanic” defied all expectations and stands today as one of the biggest and best films of all time. It wouldn’t be fair to call Cameron’s achievement anything less than that. As someone quipped, “They just don’t make movies like this anymore” and in a lot of ways this is true. “Titanic” is a throwback to the great epics of star-crossed lovers only, as with everything James Cameron tackles, twice as big as anything else.
What’s your own opinion of “Titanic”. Is it one of the best films of all time or should it better be left at the bottom of the Atlantic. Let me know – leave a comment. Your thoughts are always appreciated. Also please follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. Thanks! Until next time, all the best to you!