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  • Post last modified:11/14/2022

Titanic: A Wreck Comes Alive


Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Twentieth Century Fox wasn’t sure about letting James Cameron make an epic movie about the 1912 sinking of Titanic – especially since the director wanted it to be a romance. In other words, there would be no box-office-friendly terminators or aliens on this voyage. Fox eventually agreed to promote the film, because after all this was James Cameron. He became obsessed with every detail surrounding Titanic, going so far as to organizing several dives to the actual wreck, which lies on the bottom of the North Atlantic 12,000 feet down. Footage of the wreck is included, which is just one of many fascinating parts of a film that ended up receiving 11 Oscars, tying the record of Ben-Hur (1959). 

Leaving Southampton for New York
In April 1912, the greatest luxury ocean liner in the world, Titanic, leaves Southampton for New York City on its maiden voyage. Among the first-class passengers are Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), her fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and her mother (Frances Fisher); among the third-class passengers are Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an artist who won the ticket in a card game. Rose is not happy about her situation, since she’s only marrying Cal to secure the financial future of her family. One evening, she finds herself considering suicide by jumping from the stern, but Jack intervenes and discourages her. 

When Cal spots them, Rose tells him that she fell and was rescued by Jack – who’s promptly invited to dine with the family. It doesn’t take long though for Rose and Jack to become smitten with each other… 

Still triggering excitement
The casting of DiCaprio and Winslet was a key part of why this movie became a huge phenomenon and box-office success in 1997; the magic is there, as the actors still trigger excitement every time they appear together on a red carpet. Jack and Rose’s romance is entirely fictional, but the actors bring it to life with great assistance from Cameron and cinematographer Russell Carpenter who stage a few lovely moments, especially the one that takes place at the ship’s bow; the Céline Dion song and James Horner’s music score are other obvious romantic ingredients that win our hearts. 

Watching the film in crisp Bluray quality today shows how the CGI effects have aged, but it was a technical marvel in its day.

Horner also expertly makes our hearts race from the moment that Titanic hits the iceberg until it finally sinks, because this isn’t only a romantic epic but a very action-filled spectacle. Watching the film in crisp Bluray quality today shows how the CGI effects have aged, but it was a technical marvel in its day – and still holds one’s attention, making us understand some of the horrors facing the passengers of Titanic. Two previous movies depicted the disaster, Titanic (1953) and A Night to Remember (1958), but neither captured the full extent of what happened in such a jarring and believable way. You can criticize Cameron for writing a melodramatic script that isn’t on the same level as all the technical achievements, but he sure knows how to drive his story forward, creating numerous thrills. 

Cameron also frames his story with a modern prologue that not only takes us down to the wreck, but introduces us to Rose as an old woman (lovingly played by Gloria Stuart, a movie star in the 1930s), adding stronger emotional impact. Among the supporting cast, Zane and Kathy Bates stand out as the wonderfully intolerable fiancé and the real life “unsinkable” Molly Brown. 

Titanic wasn’t easy to make and there have been reports about Cameron’s hard-driving behavior on set, similar to what Ed Harris endured during the making of another water-logged movie, The Abyss (1989). Still, as long as Cameron makes movies like this, no one’s going to complain too much. Least of all Fox.

Titanic 1997-U.S. 194 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by James Cameron, Jon Landau. Written and directed by James Cameron. Cinematography: Russell Carpenter. Music: James Horner. Song: “My Heart Will Go On” (performed by Céline Dion). Editing: Conrad Buff, James Cameron, Richard A. Harris. Art Direction: Martin Laing, Charles Lee. Costume Design: Deborah L. Scott. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack Dawson), Kate Winslet (Rose DeWitt Bukater), Billy Zane (Caledon Hockley), Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates, David Warner… Gloria Stuart, Bill Paxton, Ioan Gruffudd. 

Trivia: Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were considered for the lead role; Reese Witherspoon and Gwyneth Paltrow as Rose. Rereleased in 3D in theaters in 2012. Cameron also made the documentary Ghosts of the Abyss (2003), where he revisited the Titanic wreck.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Original Score, Original Song.

Last word: “Titanic was a situation where I felt, I think, pretty much like the officer felt on the bridge of the ship. I could see the iceberg coming far away, but as hard as I turned that wheel there was just too much mass, too much inertia, and there was nothing I could do, but I still had to play it through. There was no way to get off. And so then, you know, you’re in this kind of situation where you feel quite doomed, and yet you still have to play by your own ethical standards, you know, no matter where it takes you. And ultimately that was the salvation, because I think if I hadn’t done that they might have panicked. They might have pulled the plug. Things would have been very different, the whole thing might have crashed and burned but it didn’t, you know. We held on. We missed the iceberg by that much.” (Cameron, Academy of Achievement)

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