Historical Accuracy in
James Cameron’s
by Bill Wormstedt
 (reprinted/revised from Words and Pictures #7, Jan/Mar 1998)

Spoiler warning - read no farther if you haven’t seen the movie, as parts of the movie are discussed which disclose elements of the plot.

    As a fictional love story set in a historical location, the history in James Cameron’s new movie Titanic is fairly accurate.  And the sets themselves are extremely accurate.   Though there are a number of historical ‘errors’, in some cases they are the result of intentional changes needed for the story.
    Even though the sinking of the Titanic isn’t that far in the past, 85 years, it’s surprising how much is NOT definitely known about the sinking.  Survivor stories frequently conflict with each other in some details, making it very hard to get at the real historical ‘facts’.  Historians do not even know exactly how many people were on the ship (over 2200), or how many were really saved (the most common figures are 705 or 711 survivors).
    The characters Rose & Jack were fictional - created just for this movie.  So are Rose’s mother, Cal Hockley, and Cal’s valet, Spicer Lovejoy.  Almost all of the First Class passengers they interacted with were historical, such as Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor and the Countess of Rothes.  The characters we see in Third Class are all fictional, though some are based on real life people.

    Some of the items which appear to be historically correct include:

    The details and sequence of events of the sinking.  The lifeboats are lowered in the order described by the British Inquiry (which is not correct, in this author's opinion), the damage to the ship from the berg agrees with current theory, the flooding of rooms in the ship happens in the right way.
    The breakup of the ship itself. For many years, it was believed the ship went down in one piece, based on the accounts of the senior surviving officer and a surviving passenger (who both happened to have been in the water fighting for their lives at the time).  Though they were ignored at the time, many other survivors reported seeing/hearing the ship split in two.  When Bob Ballard found the Titanic in two pieces on the bottom in 1985, it became obvious the ship had to have split apart at or close to the surface.
    As Rose and Jack stand at the stern of the ship, you can see a man in a white cooks outfit with them.  Though unnamed in the movie, this is Baker Charles Joughin.  According to his own testimony, he was standing on the stern as the ship went down, and stepped off into the water, without even getting his hair wet!  He paddled over to Collapsible B (the overturned lifeboat) for rescuing.
    The two old people shown in the bed as the ship is flooding are meant to be Isadore & Ida Strauss.  In a scene cut from the final version of the movie, when Ida was requested to enter a lifeboat, she refused, saying to Isadore “We have been living together for many years,  I won’t leave you now”.  This historical scene has been shown in most Titanic movies.  No one really knows what happened to the Strausses after this, though some accounts say that they may have returned to their cabin to await the end, which is what is shown here.
    In the final minutes of the sinking, Murdoch is shown shooting himself.  There are a number of survivor accounts of an officer shooting himself on the forward end of the starboard Boat Deck.  If this did happen, it would have had to been either Chief Officer Wilde or First Officer Murdoch, as all the other officers are accounted for elsewhere.  Murdoch seems to be the more likely one, as he had been seen loading boats in this area just prior to the end.  Also, since Murdoch had been in command of the Titanic when she hit the iceberg, and gave the commands which opened up five compartments to the sea, his guilt must have been tremendous.
    Murdoch says “Hard to Starboard” while attempting to miss the berg, but Quartermaster Hitchens turns the wheel to port!  In those days, the command “Hard to Starboard” meant turn the ship to port (left), which is what Murdoch wanted.  Originally, I thought Cameron had gotten this part of the movie wrong, and the wheel should be turned right, as this is how Walter Lord described it in his book The Night Lives On.  However, the movie shows the wheel being turned left (which would have turned the ship to starboard?)!  Further research (including information from Tom McCluskie of shipbuilders Harland & Wolff) has shown that the ship was rigged as a car; the command "Hard to Starboard" means to turn the wheel left, to turn the ship left. In later years, the command was changed so that the command, the turn of the wheel, and the way the ship turns all go in the same direction.

    Some of the ‘errors’ I noted were:

    The stern of the ship crashing back down, after it splits in half.  There is NO survivor evidence to support this sudden descent.  However, filming a slower descent would not have been as dramatic as what Cameron showed.
    Survivor accounts report no suction as the stern went under.  See the Baker Joughin item above.   Another case where I think Cameron changed the ‘facts’ for a more dramatic story.
    When Jack goes to find Rose part way through the movie, he passes a boy with a top, playing with his father on the back decks.  This is based on a actual photo taken on the Titanic, but the (intentional) flaw in the movie is when this happened.  Historically, the photo was taken as the Titanic sailed from Cherbourg France to Queenstown Ireland, and the photo itself left the ship in Ireland.  In the movie, to support the plot, the scene has been moved to April 14th, as the ship is at sea after leaving Ireland.  Interesting note - the actor playing the father in this scene is Titanic historian Don Lynch, co-author of “Titanic - An Illustrated History”, and also an advisor to this movie.
    Passengers would not have been allowed up among the docking machinery on the forecastle deck, as Rose and Jack did.  For that matter, Jack would have found it a lot harder to cross from Third Class to First Class territory in real life - it wasn’t quite as easy as jumping over a railing!

    I think James Cameron did an excellent job of integrating his fictional love story with the history of the Titanic. All movies about the Titanic have had errors, some more than others.   Cameron is to be commended for how much history he was able to put in the movie.  (There is a rumor that at some point, Cameron will add back in 20 or so minutes of mainly historical footage deleted from the final cut into either a video or DVD release.)

    For further reading about the Titanic, and explanations of some of the points made above:

The Story of the Titanic As Told by Its Survivors, edited by Jack Winocour

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

The Night Lives On by Walter Lord

Titanic - An Illustrated History by Don Lynch & Ken Marschall

The Last Days of the Titanic by E. E. O’Donnell

Titanic at 2 AM by Paul Quinn

Titanic Voices by Donald Hyslop, Alastair Forsyth & Shiela Jemima

Discovery of the Titanic by Bob Ballard

The Maiden Voyage by Geoffrey Marcus

Anatomy of the Titanic by Tom McCluskie

The Titanic in Films

     The Titanic has been the subject of numerous films - not to mention, ‘cameo’ appearances in many others.  Following is a list of the major films, arranged in chronological order:

Saved from the Titanic (1912) - written and acted by Dorothy Gibson, an actual Titanic survivor.  No copies of this short silent film exist.

Atlantic (1929) - Though the ship in this film was not ‘Titanic’, the story was clearly inspired by the White Star liner.

Titanic (German, 1942) - A piece of Nazi propaganda, this movie plays all the British characters as corrupt and incompetent, and the (fictional) German First Officer as ‘the epitome of German efficiency’.

Titanic (1953) - Shown regularly on TV, starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, and a very young Robert Wagner.

A Night to Remember (1958) - Based on Walter Lord’s best selling book, this is the first movie to actually attempt to get the small details right. And does a very good job of it!  Titanic’s Fourth Officer Boxhall was hired as an advisor.

S. O. S. Titanic (1979) - Though not as historically correct as the previous film, this is also based on a book, Titanic survivor Lawrence Beesley’s The Loss of the SS Titanic.  A number of scenes were filmed on the liner Queen Mary at Long Beach, California.  Lawrence Beesley is played by actor David Warner, who also appears in Cameron’s movie as Cal Hockley’s valet, Spicer Lovejoy.

Raise the Titanic (1980) - Based on the Clive Cussler book of the same name, the story here is not the sinking of the Titanic, but the raising of the hulk.  In 1980, it was still believed the ship sank intact, and that is how she’s raised here.

Titanic (1996/7) - CBS TV mini-series.  Though eagerly awaited by Titanic buffs, this film takes a number of liberties with the history, and is a showcase for the fictional love story.  A fairly graphic rape scene (which is not historical) mars the first half of the movie.  It does have the first filmed scenes of the breakup of the ship.

Titanic (1997) - As I write this (January 11 1998), Cameron’s movie is still the top seller at the box office, having raked in over $198 million in the US.

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