Is the Titanic a true story? Is the film based on real life?
James Cameron’s cinematic masterpiece “Titanic” is a romantic tragedy that propelled actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet to searing stardom and still shoots millions of hearts. The 1997 film follows the doomed lovers Jack, a penniless young artist, and Rose, a wealthy engaged woman. The two are from opposite ends of society but are united by their passionate and rebellious spirits. Jack and Rose’s relationship embarks with all the odds, only to be destroyed by the sinking of the very ship on which it had flourished.
The James Cameron director has won his share of cash, rave reviews, prestigious accolades and dedicated fans for representing the eternal nature of love even in the face of disaster. It’s only natural for fans to wonder if some historical event was the premise of the film. Let’s see if to what extent “Titanic” is real and to what extent is it imagined!
Is the Titanic a true story?
“Titanic” is partly based on a true story. Cameron based the film on the real British ship RMS Titanic which collided with an iceberg and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean on its maiden voyage in 1912. Over a thousand passengers died, making of the deadliest peacetime cruise ship sinking incident to date. The catastrophic sinking of the eponymous ship has inspired many artists, from novelist and poet Thomas Hardy to painter Ken Marschall. But perhaps the most memorable and publicly recognizable artwork based on this historic disaster is “Titanic”.
Cameron and his team worked hard to visually accurately represent the doomed ship. The director dived 12 times to see the wreckage underwater. “We dug up all the known photographs, poured over architectural drawings and built our ship rivet by rivet, making sure everything was in its place as we knew in 1996,” said the director. The grand staircase and suites shown in the film are also based on plans for the real Titanic. Blueprints for the Titanic’s sister ship, RMS Olympic, were also used in the set design to fill in gaps in documents detailing the titular ship.
Most viewers know that Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater are artistic creations – fictional characters required by the plot to demonstrate the overwhelming power of true love. However, several characters and plots of the “Titanic” have real inspirations and counterparts. Socialite and traveler Margaret “Molly” Brown (Kathy Bates) existed and was a huge help in the evacuation and rescue process. Most notably, she allegedly tried to save the lower class passengers and even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to convince the lifeboats to go back and save more.
Brown is also said to have raised funds for underprivileged survivors and helped organize funerals for the deceased. Thus, she is often called “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”. Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill) in “Titanic” reinforces in viewers the seriousness and nobility of a captain’s oath, and it did exist in real life. Paul Burns, vice president and curator of the Titanic-themed museums in Tennessee and Missouri, noted that Captain Smith’s swift decision to seal the ship’s watertight doors “kept the ship from sinking as it normally would.” .
However, while many praise Captain Smith’s efforts to put the lives of his passengers before his own, others wonder if it was his error in judgment that caused the sinking in the first place. Captain Smith had received ice warnings – however, more often than not these reports simply referred to the position of the ice in the water and were not indicative of immediate danger, especially on a clear day.
“Smith made mistakes, that’s true, but until the end he didn’t shirk his responsibilities or try to shirk them and paid the ultimate price,” said Gary Cooper, who wrote a complete book about him titled ‘Captain of the Titanic: The Life of Edward John Smith.’ Captain Smith sank with the ship, as shown in the film. However, it is not known whether he was behind the wheel or outside helping with the lifeboats at the time of his death.
Several minor characters from the “Titanic” are also rooted in reality. Thomas Andrew Junior (Victor Garber), John Jacob Astor IV (Eric Braeden), Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (Bernard Fox), J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), Chief Officer Henry Wilde (Mark Lindsay Chapman) and Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign) are just a few of the many real-life personalities that the film directly portrays. Although their dialogues and circumstances are artistic and imaginative interpretations, the existence of the aforementioned persons is certainly verified.
Thomas Andrew Junior was the principal designer of the Titanic and the Olympic, and had been aboard the ship on its maiden voyage. When the ship collided with the iceberg, Andrew quickly realized that the ship was going to sink and urged the passengers to flee. The film shows him as a caring man. He quietly bemoans the mistakes he made in building the ship towards the end. This may be true, as the real Andrew was on board taking notes on how to improve the ship’s design.
Joseph Bruce Ismay was the chairman of the White Star Line, the shipping company that built the Titanic. The film portrays Ismay as a greedy businessman, concerned only with profits and positive media coverage. He even goes so far as to ignore the rule of “women and children only” to save himself. It seems that this interpretation of Ismay is not too far removed from the truth. Eyewitnesses have claimed to have seen Ismay breaking the rules and even monopolizing a private cabin aboard the rescue vessel.
In the film, Rose’s bossy and arrogant fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) acts the same way – he pretends to be the father of a random child in order to secure a spot on the lifeboats. However, Hockley is entirely fictional.
One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is when the orchestra continues to play with all its might even as the ship sinks and the sea rises all around them. The scene is also based on historical truth. William Hartley, violinist and conductor, and his group of John Woodward, John Frederick Clarke, Theodore Brailey, Percy Cornelius Taylor, Georges Krins, John Law Hume and Roger Bricoux, performed for over two hours as the chaos unfolded around them. They died when the ship sank.
Although “Titanic” portrayed the band performing “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” historians still wonder which songs actually soothed the ears of the dying. However, Cameron’s traps of artistic freedom are revealed with the character of First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, who had been aboard the Titanic. In the film, Murdoch shoots two panicked passengers – for disobeying his orders – before killing himself out of guilt. Murdoch’s descendants felt the film defamed his integrity and his noble attempts to save as many lives as possible.
“I didn’t think I was a historian, and I think I wasn’t as sensitive to the fact that his family, his survivors might be offended by this and they were,” said Cameron, who had publicly apologized . In addition, Scott Neeson, then vice-president of 20th Century Fox, had personally gone to apologize to Murdoch’s nephew. Interestingly, even the fictional rose – especially Gloria Stuart’s elder rose – is based on the real Beatrice Wood, a bold and lively artist. Although unrelated to the historic ship and its events, Wood is famous for his avant-garde works and fiery nature.
She even had an unhappy love affair with an Indian scientist, unable to be with him due to their different origins. Cameron was taken by her enigmatic personality and channeled the same into Rose. Wood passed away on March 12, 1998. Films like “Schindler’s List”, “Chernobyl 1986”, “Flight” and “1917” all relate historical catastrophes and the great tension of the human bonds which unite them and in spite of them. It seems that fiction is one of the best ways to understand, visualize, and learn from the horrors of the past.
“I’m learning what the limits of the story really are. We can never really really fully understand what happened, for any historical event. It will always be an approximation, ”Cameron confessed. Thus, ‘Titanic’ uses a powerful yet imaginary love story to tell the cold facts of a real disaster. It takes creative freedoms to convincingly demonstrate the devastation of the fall of a mighty ship and the loss of human lives that could have had a bright future. Perhaps we need fiction to recognize the untold stories of those who have been quietly extinguished in historical tragedies large and small.
Read more: Where was Titanic filmed?