Titanic (1953)

It was before the James Cameron film came out that I discovered Titanic. Like millions of others, I became fascinated with every aspect of it, from its illustrious passenger list containing some of the most memorable names of the day, to the immense tragedy of its collision with an iceberg and subsequent foundering in the North Atlantic, leading to the loss of over 1,500 lives. Some lived to tell the tale, others to bear the blame. Many perished in those frozen waters and their bodies were never found. Newspapers told a bleak story of untold horrors accompanied by acts of heroism.

And Hollywood almost immediately started to cash in. There have been dozens of adaptations of the disaster, from more biographical works like A Night to Remember, based on the bestselling book by Walter Lord and written off the transcripts and interviews of survivors, to more recent big-budget productions like James Cameron’s Titanic. They have different storylines, musical scores, and plot arcs but all lead to the same inevitable conclusion: a collision, disbelief, panic, and mass loss of life, often among the leading characters. Audiences accompany them into the labrynth of the ship, into narrow corridors and behind locked gates. We cry when families are separated and lives destroyed, and hope that somehow this time the ending will change. Whatever drives us to this obsession, it is not one we ever forget.

The original Titanic was filmed in 1953 and is one of the better stories I have seen set on the “ship of dreams.” It does not revolve around former lovers meeting once again, or newborn fascination that turns to love in a short amount of time, but about a family torn through difference of opinion. Julia, the mother, does not like her children’s change in character since their introduction to society and wishing to spare them further torment and pride, she is taking them back to America away from their powerful, wealthy father, Richard. Her hopes of remaining undiscovered are for naught when he slips aboard, having bought a steerage ticket off an immigrant passenger. Maritial problems and the revelation of a horrible secret play out against their daughter’s budding romantic interest in a fellow passenger, and the horrific night to come.

While certain aspects about the latter half of the film leave much to be desired (for one thing, it merely ends — audiences expecting the aftermath or even a glimpse of people foundering in the water after that final fateful plunge will be disappointed) and there are sometimes shocking inaccuracies (such as the ship colliding on the port side rather than starboard), I was surprised with how passionate the film was. The social issues that the main characters are dealing with are very raw and realistic. It is not overly melodramatic but there are moments in which their emotinal torment and disgust are vivid. None of them are perfect but in the end, all find redemption in some way or another.

One of the secondary characters is a Roman Catholic priest recently booted out of the priesthood due to his affection for the bottle. We watch as, in torment, he attempts to figure out what sort of a telegram to send his proud parents. Unusually, we never see his fate, only are left to assume what it is along with other male characters as once the ship plunges and we are left aboard the lifeboats, it is up to our imagination to write the ending. The one that comes to mind is shocking for its morbidity. Our natural conclusion is “All of them died.” Because many of them did. And yet, there is also a touching aspect of peace to it, as the music flows out across the rushing water. “Nearer my God to Thee…” and the band played on.

Perhaps our fascination with the disaster is how narrowly it might have been prevented. If only they would have had binoculars. If only they had been traveling at a slower pace. If only they had diverted their route south and heeded the ice warnings. If only Murdoch hadn’t ordered “Hard a starboard!” Maybe it is our inward realization that nothing — no individual, no society, no government — is infallible. Arrogance is what contributed to Titanic‘s downfall, just as it destroyed Rome, Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and so forth. “No one, not even God Himself, could sink this ship!”

God didn’t.

But an iceberg did.

Not that they weren’t warned, numerous times.

Not that obsticles that might have prevented greater loss of life were not put in their path, and went unheeded.

Not that there wasn’t tremendous heroism, and God was on that ship that night, but when we become too blind, to self-absorbed, too arrogant, our downfall is awaiting us.

“Pride goeth before a fall.”

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