I was obsessed with the RMS Titanic when I was a teenager. I watched all the movies about the ship, I saw all the biographies, I read all the books. I even went as far as to listen to the recorded transcripts from the trials that followed. I was fascinated with not only the immense tragedy (one that could have been averted in any number of ways) but the people that went down with the ship and either survived or met their end in those icy waters: historic names like Captain James Smith, William, Thomas Andrews, Margaret Brown, Charles Lightoller, Bruce Ismay, and many others.
When the James Cameron film was released, many were shocked at the misrepresentation of certain man. The descendents of First Officer William Murdoch even threatened a lawsuit against him slander. But Murdoch was not the only “vilified” party.
Here are some of the differences between what plays out on the screen and the actual events and persons involved in history’s worst maritime disaster.
William Murdoch, First Officer
In the film, Murdoch accepts a bribe from a wealthy man desiring to obtain a position on the lifeboat. He later throws the money back in the man’s face. There is a rush for the last lifeboat and in the scuffle Murdoch shoots two passengers and then, horrified by his actions, turns the gun on himself.
Eyewitness accounts both support and disprove this version of events. More than a dozen survivors claim to have seen and/or heard shots fired from Titanic in its last moments. Several claim that an officer took his own life and one or two of them said it was Murdoch. However, testimony from fellow officers Charles Lightoller and Harold Bride, as well as Colonel Archibald Gracie, state otherwise and claim they saw Murdoch drown when the final lifeboat was engulfed by the sea.
Murdoch was described by people who knew him as “calm and courageous.” While it is true that more men survived on his side of the ship, there is no evidence to support bribery and no conclusive reason to assume he took his life rather than drown with the others.
James Cameron later admitted it “was a mistake” to depict Murdoch in a way that was slanderous. In his illustrated screenplay, he is quick to highlight the virtues of the man (and call his suicide “honorable”) and to remind us that at the film’s conclusion, Murdoch is among the ghosts Rose encounters on board ship, implying his redemption.
Charles Lightoller, 2nd Officer
I admit to having a fondness for this man because my first acquaintance with him was in A Night to Remember. I will never forget the image of him standing atop the overturned life raft, frost in his hair and determination in his eyes. Imagine my horror to see him depicted in Titanic as a bullying lout who coldly separates families, shows no compassion for the passengers left behind, and insists on loading life boats at ⅓ their capacity.
Lightoller was the highest ranking officer to survive, so much of the blame fell on him. His heroic behavior was witnessed by many and it was he who navigated the overturned raft, with more than thirty men crammed onto it, to the side of the Carpathia. The least amount of passengers he loaded into a boat was 25, not 12. He was one of the final officers to leave Titanic and the last one to board the rescue ship. His cool head and positive influence on the men trapped with him on that freezing overturned craft saved lives. Later in his life, he was heroic a second time when he led a courageous rescue operation to troops trapped at Dunkirk during WWII.
While those are the two most controversial depictions in the film other slanders remain—Captain Smith turns away from a woman clutching a baby and offers no assistance. He ends his life staring in shock at a wall of water threatening to flood the bridge. Many stories of the captain’s final moments exist and all of them conflict with one another, but all claim him to have been a man of honor.
Other misleading information includes the evil intention of the crew to prevent steerage passengers from reaching the top decks and access to the lifeboats. The locked floor-to-ceiling iron gates are false; the gates between class sections were waist high. People were not prevented from going upstairs, but because the ship was designed to keep the social classes apart, many could not find their way upstairs. Crew was on-hand to assist, but the large majority of steerage passengers could not speak English and therefore not understand the evacuation orders.
One glaring change in history that few people seem interested in confronting revolves around “Molly” Brown. Depicted (accurately) in the movie as a boisterous, fun-loving, rather brash woman, fiction replaces history when Titanic founders. Stuck in a small lifeboat with a particularly obnoxious, insulting, fear-mongering minor officer, the “Molly” of the film is cowed by his threats to throw her overboard if she does not shut up, and sits down in silence, utterly useless during the remainder of the film other than to accuse her fellow passengers of heartlessness in not returning for survivors.
Margaret Brown (never called “Molly” during her life—that came from The Unsinkable Molly Brown) did not sit down, and did not shut up. She told the officer bulling them that if he didn’t shut up she was going to throw him overboard. Knowing her fellow passengers were likely to freeze if they did not keep moving, she organized them to row in order to keep out the cold. On the Carpathia she used her knowledge of foreign languages to assist with non-English speaking survivors and was the last woman to disembark in New York, once assured her fellow passengers had all been met by family and/or friends. She organized a fund that raised over $10,000 for destitute survivors. Because of her status as a woman, she was prevented from testifying at the trials, which prompted her to write her own account, which was published in several major newspapers.
Interestingly enough, the most accurate and sympathetic depiction of a historical figure in the film is Thomas Andrews. The ship’s perfectionist designer, Andrews was devastated by the consequences of his design flaw and the lack of sufficient lifeboats. Both in real life and on screen, he assisted where he could and then retired to the first class smoking room to await the end, in the company of several other gentlemen with no desire to “swim for it.”
Many lost their lives that night, but many heroes were also born.