On 15 April 1912, five days after embarking on her maiden voyage, from England to New York, the unsinkable Titanic hit an iceberg and went down off the coast of Newfoundland, leaving 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers dead.
At $200 million, James Cameron’s Titanic was the most expensive film ever made when it was released in 1997. Much of the budget for the movie – filmed over two gruelling years – was spent on a near-life-size replica of the doomed ship built in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, with reproductions of the original interiors down to the silverware, wallpaper, and carpeting.
Instead of a straightforward action movie, writer-director Cameron created a surprisingly old-fashioned romance in which the strongest character was a young woman, proving that the magic of Hollywood was far from gone.
Kate Winslet carried the film as Rose DeWitt Bukater, a 17-year-old upper-class American passenger who escapes her stuffy background and hated millionaire fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) when she meets 20-year-old Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a penniless artist who wins his steerage ticket in a poker game.
After a contrived meeting – Jack saves Rose from suicide – he borrows a tux intended for the son of Molly Brown (Kathy Bates is a bawdy delight in too brief a role) and charms Rose at the captain’s table with his philosophy about “making every day count”.
Later, Rose boldly asks Jack to sketch her in the nude, wearing only a priceless blue diamond, a gift from Cal. Later still, in a Renault touring car tucked away in the ship’s hold, Jack trembles as he and Rose make love for the first time.
When the iceberg hits, Jack has been falsely arrested for stealing the diamond, and Rose – rivalling the determination shown by Linda Hamilton in Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) – braves flood and fire to get him out of handcuffs.
The movie opens and closes with present-day scenes of Bill Paxton as treasure hunter Brock Lovett using a submersible vehicle to dive two and a half miles beneath the Atlantic to the rusted ruins of the Titanic, trying to find the blue diamond that Rose wore the night Jack drew her.
To that end, he enlists the aid of Rose, now 102-years-old and played, beautifully, by Gloria Stuart.
Titanic skimps on details about the ship’s crew, the shortage of lifeboats and the distress signals that went unheeded, and the film is, at times, overblown (it drags at three-plus hours) and over-loud, yet there are undeniable moments of pure cinema.
The film is strongest when its images are most harsh: the great ship cracking in two, the stern standing nearly straight up with passengers clinging to its sides before plunging into the sea; Molly Brown failing to persuade the passengers in her lifeboat to risk their lives to save others; and that final moonless night, the sea teeming with life-jacketed passengers – faces blue and throats raw from screaming for help before hypothermia reduces them to silent, floating corpses.
Near the end, the prow of a lifeboat moves silently through the frozen dead – a detail that says more about the real-life tragedy than any other moment in the film.
Rose DeWitt Bukater
Rose DeWitt Bukater, aged 102
Ruth DeWitt Bukater
First Officer Murdoch
Fifth Officer Lowe
Second Officer Lightoller
Chief Officer Wilde
Mark Lindsay Chapman
John Jacob Astor
Colonel Archibald Gracie
Camilla Overbye Roos
Sir Duff Gordon
Lady Duff Gordon
Countess of Rothes
Scott G. Anderson
Chief Baker Joughin
Mark Rafael Truitt
Chief Engineer Bell
Leading Stoker Barrett
Carpenter John Hutchinson