I selected to watch the 1997 film, Titanic directed and produced by James Cameron. This film is based on the real-life maiden voyage and sinking of the luxury ocean liner the R.M.S. Titanic in the year 1912. I chose this film as it is my favorite film of all time, and I have been interested in this topic since I was a child. I rewatched the film for this review on Netflix, although I will say I have watched the film many of times on the VHS box set growing up. The director of the 1997 film, was also taken by this historical event and conducted much research before, during, and after the movie was filmed. The love story between Jack and Rose takes the center stage in the film which is a fictional story, set in a very real historical event.
The ‘Unsinkable’ Ship:
Throughout the film, the message is that the Titanic was an unsinkable ship, built so strongly and the first of its kind in modern luxury. Many characters outright state that the ship is impossible to sink such as Thomas Andrews who was the architect of the ocean liner. This message foreshadowed the fate of the Titanic as we know it eventually hit an iceberg on the night of April 14th, 1912. This idea of the ‘unsinkable’ ship created a false sense of security in modern navel technology and may have led to a slow reaction time when the ship started to sink. This false sense of trust in the technology led to the downfall of the Titanic. The film did a great job at this theme, we see this when the ship struck the iceberg, many passengers were alarmed at first, but were reassured by the ship’s crew. This is historically accurate, as there were also not enough lifeboats on the real Titanic as they felt they would never need them as the ship was impossible to sink.
Another major theme seen throughout the film has to do with the class tensions that occurred during the early 20th century. In the film, it is made very clear what 1st class life was like on the voyage versus what life was like for the 3rd class passengers. James Cameron does this very well in the film as the way the set looked for the 1st class cabins and decks vs the 3rd class cabins and decks were historically accurate. The treatment of the 1st class people vs the 3rd class people was shown through the story between Jack and Rose, which of course is not historically accurate, and more than likely the 1st and 3rd class passengers probably did not interact much on the real ship.
Early 20th Century Immigration:
This was another theme seen throughout the film, many of the 3rd class passengers were people trying to immigrate to the United States in the movie. This was also accurate for many of the 3rd class passengers on the real Titanic, as well as the 1st and 2nd class passengers. Tickets to gain passage onto the Titanic were very expensive even for 3rd class, so many of the people were using the ocean liner as a way to get over to America to start a new life.
3rd Class Trapped in the Lower Deck (1:54:00-1:55:00):
This moment looks at the class tensions theme, we see the 3rd class passengers all waiting to be allowed to load up onto the lifeboats, but they are locked in the lower deck. The ship is sinking, but they are not allowed to go to the upper deck to the lifeboats until the 1st and 2nd class passengers have gotten onto the lifeboats first. We know now that this is a dramatized scene that more than likely did not happen in the real sinking, although this is a powerful scene to show these class tensions aboard the Titanic.
The Sinking of the Ship (2:40:30-2:45:00):
This moment shows the final moments of the Titanic sinking. The camera pans to the characters that are safely in a lifeboat watching the sinking, realizing that indeed this ship was not unsinkable. This scene also shows the crew and passengers scrambling to get off the ship safely, which this chaos is captured in a way that makes the viewer almost feel as if they are there among the chaos. The actual sinking of the ship and the way it broke into two was later found to be extremely accurate.
Teaching the Film Titanic:
I would introduce this film to a high school level US history class by talking about the major themes of this historic event and that is seen in this film; faith in modern technology, early 20th-century class tensions, and immigration history. I would make sure to tell the students to focus on these themes rather than the love story that dominates this film, for this reason, I may assign the students to only watch relevant portions of the movie (as the movie is over 3 hours long). I would use this film as an opportunity to talk about historical accuracy in ‘history’ films and the commitment of the producers to create a historically accurate film. I would ask the students in what could a film director/producer do to ensure that the film is historically accurate, what types of sources should they look at? I would want the students to ask themselves what source material is appropriate when doing research. I would also ask learners to think about how can film producers add in these larger themes, and how much time should be dedicated to them?