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Saving the Titanic - tonight on PBS


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#1 SDG

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Posted 01 April 2012 - 07:37 PM

Premieres tonight at 10pm ET, with encore presentations later this month.

Watched a screener with the family. Enjoyed it. My thoughts:

Titanic is like a stage where God says to you, “You have two hours to play out the rest of your life. What will you be? Will you be a hero? Will you be a coward?”


Those words, uttered by Titanic actor Bill Paxton in James Cameron’s other film about the Titanic, the undersea documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, are about as appropriate a prelude to one of my grievances with Cameron’s mega-hit as anything.

It is a moral crime that Cameron’s film, which has sadly become the definitive retelling of the story for our generation, is so stunted in its depiction of the range of human moral behavior in times of crisis. Titanic highlights and indeed exaggerates the cowardice, the folly, the dereliction of duty, while ignoring the heroism, the nobility, the self-sacrifice which is also an integral part of the story. Yes, Cameron allows for the possibility of heroism in the name of romantic love, self-sacrifice for one’s best beloved — but not heroism for strangers, or in the name of duty.

Saving the Titanic, a docudrama airing this month on PBS, sheds light on an untold page from the heroic side of the ledger. Combining traditional documentary with speculative historical dramatization, it highlights the story of the engineering crew, firemen, electricians and stokers who labored below decks to keep power flowing to pumps and lifeboat winches, first hoping to save the ship and then striving to delay the inevitable as long as possible to save as many lives as possible...



#2 kenmorefield

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Posted 02 April 2012 - 08:22 AM

Premieres tonight at 10pm ET, with encore presentations later this month.

Watched a screener with the family. Enjoyed it. My thoughts:


It is a moral crime that Cameron’s film, which has sadly become the definitive retelling of the story for our generation, is so stunted in its depiction of the range of human moral behavior in times of crisis.

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Steven, I find the phrase "moral crime" in this sentence...problematic...and not merely because I enjoy Cameron's film.

#3 SDG

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Posted 02 April 2012 - 08:31 AM

Well, it's hyperbole, but hyperbole with serious moral feeling behind it. Here, from my review of Titanic, is my defense, such as it is.

Note that even Cameron has acknowledged having wronged one of the Titanic crew members. The wider "crime," though, IMO, is that not only has the film wronged the dead (as well as survivors) by depicting the worst of the behavior to the exclusion of the best, but that, "robbing heroism of its nobility," the film "has in effect robbed generations to come of an opportunity to admire and respect selflessness and courage under fire."

Perhaps the most melancholy thing about Titanic is its celebration of romantic ideals to the exclusion of such self-denying virtues as honor, duty, and heroism. Jack may sacrifice himself to save his beloved — but is anyone seen nobly risking or sacrificing his life for a stranger? Is anyone lauded for devotion to duty or selfless courage under duress? On the contrary, despair, resignation, guilt, self-interest, or at best concern for one’s loved ones consume nearly everyone.

As seen here, Capt. Smith (Bernard Hill) retreats into paralysis and confusion as the crisis mounts. First Officer William Murdoch (Ewan Stewart) takes a bribe, shoots passengers, and eventually shoots himself in despair.* Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), designer of the Titanic, helplessly apologizes to Rose for failing to “build you a stronger ship.” The musicians, instead of nobly playing throughout the crisis to maintain calm, are depicted concluding that no one is listening to them anyway, but deciding that they would like to keep playing anyway. They might as well be (as the expression goes) rearranging deck chairs.

Cameron even denies the laurel of heroism to upper-class men who willingly went to their deaths while third-class women and children were saved, making them seem ridiculous rather than noble. Thus we have jolly-good what‑ho Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign) retiring complacently to the saloon to await the worst, airly brushing aside suggestions that he don a lifejacket with a cheery request for brandy instead. When the rising flood waters actually reach the room, Cameron zooms for a closeup on Guggenheim’s wide-eyed face, as if suggest that the silly old fool had no idea what his grandiose notions of heroism would actually mean when it came to the point.

As crises often do, the Titanic disaster exemplifies both the best and the worst in human nature. Alas, Cameron’s film revels in exposing cowardice and hypocrisy — certainly part of the story — while robbing heroism of its nobility. Titanic has in effect robbed generations to come of an opportunity to admire and respect selflessness and courage under fire.

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* There is apparently no evidence that Officer Murdoch actually committed any of these acts. The studio has apologized for the film’s portrayal and funded a memorial honoring Murdoch’s efforts to save passengers. I am also informed by a reader that in the special-edition commentary track Cameron himself apologizes for the inaccuracy and refers to Murdoch as a hero.


Edited by SDG, 02 April 2012 - 08:33 AM.


#4 SDG

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Posted 02 April 2012 - 09:01 AM

P.S. I guess this is also part of my defense (or case for the prosecution):

Told by Rose that over half the ship’s passengers must be doomed, Cal sneers, “Not the better half.” This, of course, is not meant to suggest what actually overwhelmingly happened, that the women were saved and the men perished. For Cal, the rule is not “Women and children first,” but “First class first.”*

“First class first” is also, however, the overwhelming impression that Titanic conveys about what actually happened. Repeated shots of passengers in steerage at multiple junctures held back from lifeboats by chained gates and armed stewards imply that privilege, not gender and age, was the overarching principle of who lived or died. Here again the ship itself is implicated in the evils Cal represents.

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* The facts are otherwise. Women or children of every class, even steerage, survived at a greater rate than even first-class men. It’s true that a higher-class ticket tended to correlate with improved chances of survival — in part due to physical proximity to the lifeboats. But that correlation is much weaker than the correlation of sex and age with survival. Nor is it absolute; third-class men, for instance, survived at twice the rate of second-class men.