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Titanic (1997)
Director James Cameron
Rebecca Kingsbury

itanic is the biggest box-office film in movie history, grossing more than one billion dollars worldwide. Winning eleven Oscars, seventy-three other awards and forty-five nominations, James Cameron’s picture is one of, if not the most famous film. Running over the original budget of $200,000,000, it’s obvious that a lot of money was spent on it, and in particular on making it authentic and true to the well-known ship, but just how well spent was this money?

When Cameron decided to make a film about Titanic, a subject and story that is already so well-known, he not only wanted to show the juxtaposition of rich and poor, the gender roles of the early twentieth century played out till death, but also the human face of this tragedy that occurred nearly a century ago. He wanted to humanize it with two main characters – Rose and Jack. These fictitious characters are the audiences’ guides through the tragic event and show us the mannerisms of the time as well as showing through their eyes the class-ridden ‘ship of dreams’.

The authenticity started in twelve dives to photograph and film the original ship. Cameron said, “I knew not only that I must make this film, but that in making it I had to film the real ship.” The images brought back were integrated into the film and possess an undeniable emotional power because of the fact that they are real. From these ghostly images came the realism of the film – “a rigorous philosophy of absolute correctness permeated every department, from set design and construction through decorating, props, wardrobe, hairdressing and visual effects.” Cameron’s determination to make Titanic live again on film didn’t just include researching thoroughly the costumes and sets but also human behaviour – the way people moved, spoke, and their etiquette. Cameron took upon himself the responsibility of history, the challenge of sorting out the information and misinformation of the event, to portray it as truthfully as he could. Where the facts weren’t clear, he made his own choices but he assures us that these were “conscious and well-informed decisions and not casual Hollywood mistakes.”

The second step towards complete authenticity was the building of the ship. In Fox Studios Baja, a  near full-size exterior ship was erected in a seventeen-million-gallon oceanfront tank. This allowed Cameron and his crew not only to sink the ship in a way true to history, but also to build the intricate, elegant details of the ship, and whether you noticed them or not, there are a lot of them. For the four and a half days before the collision you spend a great deal of time exploring the ship with first class Rose and third class passenger Jack, which requires a vast level of specific detail, on such items as the iconic oak carving clock at the top of the Grand Staircase where Rose and Jack meet.

Cameron was so committed to detail that even the paintings in the film are authentic. Picasso’s “The Guitar Player” was flown in from the Musee National d’Art Moderne in Paris to be displayed in Roses’ suite. Most of the décor and interior of the ship was reconstructed by, or under the supervision of, the original companies that furnished the Titanic, from the carpet to the chandeliers. With the ‘professionals’ on board, how could the film be anything but authentic?

Even the first-class dining room chairs were made exact replicas of the furniture on the ship, as the set dresser Michael Ford jokes “just as stiff and uncomfortable as the originals.”
The costumes are true to the fashion of 1912, from the smart bowler hat, the epitome of style, and ornate-beaded period evening gowns of the higher classes, to the flat-cap, dirty shirts and plain colours of the steerage passengers.
With these details comes some dramatic license, as explained in the credits. The fact that Rose and Jack ever meet on a ship that is physically designed to prevent that happening, is a route taken with this license. The added fact that they fall in love is another. The cross-class love story is unlikely to have happened. The snobbish Rose, clean and proper, together with Jack, the third class drifter, who probably wouldn’t bathe that often, if at all, is a challenging defiance of the strict world around them. However, without this compelling love story, would we feel so much for the passengers on board the ill-fated ship? Would the film have the same humanizing effect? I don’t think it would and it is this effect that Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life in a way that hadn’t been done before.

The factual errors that appear in the film are hardly noticeable and do not jeopardise it’s authenticity. The ownership and location of some rooms are changed, for example the suite that Rose has was in reality Bruce Ismay’s room, and the mater-at-arm’s office where Jack is handcuffed is depicted as an exterior room with a porthole when it was actually an interior room.

These small errors, although a Titanic scholar would notice, are not important to the integrity of the film. How could they make a dip on the authenticity of a film where the two million pound ship exterior and interior sets, after being made almost complete replicas of the original ship, are repeatedly sunk to film the ship’s end? Where the Grand Staircase is destroyed by ninety thousand gallons of water from overhead tanks, submerging the elegance in the cold Pacific Ocean? Not only is this film authentic in the particulars, but in the destruction of the ship.

Whether you liked this film or not, there’s no denying the effort and results on behalf of everyone that worked on it to make it as true to the event as possible. Everything was researched, built, handcrafted and displayed, right down to the White Star Line symbol on the serviettes. Cameron’s complete dedication to this film is clear, even more so as he sacrificed his $8 million director’s salary and percentage of the gross to make sure it was completed and released. The attention he gave to the tiniest of details makes this film the most authentic that I know of.
© Rebecca Kingsbury December 2005
Rebecca is an English and Creative Writing Major at the University of Portsmouth

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