My Heart Will Go On: The ‘Titanic’ Legacy
by Libby Kirk
“Never let go.” “I’ll never let go, Jack. I promise.”
These are the images most people will hold in their heads when they hear the word ‘Titanic’: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, arms outstretched on the bow, sailing into the sunset; Kate gazing tragically into Leo’s deep, blue eyes as sparkling crystals of ice form in her hair; Kate sobbing as Leo’s body drifts slowly into the depths of the ocean, all to a soaring and emotional Céline Dion soundtrack.
I may be stating the obvious, but when the real victims of the RMS Titanic died 100 years ago, it wasn’t to the sound of Céline Dion. They didn’t share tender, romantic moments on the ship’s bow (it was off limits), and it’s unlikely that any of the ship’s upper-class ladies decided to dance an Irish jig below deck with the working class masses.
The film may have been created to commemorate what was undoubtedly one of the greatest disasters in maritime history, but if anything, what it really does is distance us from reality.
At 11:40pm on 14 April 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg. Less than three hours later, the ship was sunk. Built to carry 64 lifeboats, the actual number the Titanic carried was just 20. Each of these lifeboats should have held 64 passengers; the first to leave the ship carried only 28. Under a third of the 2,223 passengers and crew on board the ship that night survived. Over 1,500 lives were lost.
Despite the shocking reality of what happened, some might say that the Titanic is paid more attention than it is due. The Titanic is not the only ship ever to have sunk, nor is it historically the most important. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania (see picture) by a German U-boat in 1915 not only caused nearly 1,200 deaths, but also became symbolic of why the First World War was being fought, and partially led to American intervention in the war. Nevertheless, the public awareness of the Lusitania pales in comparison to that of the Titanic.
Similarly, if we are to measure tragedy simply by the loss of life, the story of the RMS Titanic is by no means the worst. Just 10 years ago, a Senegalese ferry called Le Joola capsized off the coast of Gambia, killing 1,863 people. In 1987, an estimated 4,375 people drowned in the world’s worst peacetime shipping disaster when the Doña Paz collided with an oil tanker in the Philippines. Both of these disasters are more recent than that of the Titanic; both have a significantly higher death toll. Yet these disasters are largely forgotten.
The enduring legacy of the Titanic cannot, however, be entirely attributed to the Hollywood film. There are other factors to consider, for example geographical location. Events in Gambia, the Philippines, and the developing world are often dismissed by those of us living in Europe and America; we are somehow less able to identify with their problems, or even simply don’t care. Meanwhile, the Titanic struck closer to home: the ship was built in Belfast, sailed from Southampton, was destined for New York, all of which somehow makes it more shocking.
Add to this the irony of the sinking of the ‘unsinkable ship’, and the Titanic takes on a whole new significance. It epitomises human arrogance – the belief in our own invincibility – and in doing so gains allegorical status. More than just a terrible accident, the story of the Titanic can also be viewed as a reflection upon society.
James Cameron’s Hollywood blockbuster is not the only film based on the Titanic; it is in fact one in a long line of films, some modern, some released just days after the event itself. The tale has been reworked many times, to many different ends. While Cameron’s film was aimed at commercial success, the story has also been told as a piece of Nazi propaganda, and even earlier, in silent movie Saved from the Titanic starring survivor Dorothy Gibson. The discrepancies between the films show not only their subjectivity and unreliability, but also suggest the ulterior motives that can lie behind such retellings of history.
A recent article by Phillip French in The Observer suggested that for a more sober and accurate retelling of the story of the RMS Titanic, we should look not to the Hollywood film, but rather to the 1958 film A Night to Remember, based on the non-fiction book by Walter Lord. But stood side-by-side with Cameron’s film, the fact is that many of us would choose drama and romanticism over factual accuracy.
In the end, this is what appeals to us most about Titanic. We don’t watch it to remember the dead, or out of respect for the crew. We watch it for the star-crossed lovers, the Romeo-and-Juliet plot-line, the sense of intimacy as Jack sketches Rose’s portrait. We watch it for the romance.
The success of Cameron’s Titanic makes it difficult to maintain that we would have the same level of awareness were it not for the film and surrounding media attention. It’s rare that the Titanic is brought up in conversation without mention of the film, and even media coverage that isn’t directly related to the film often seems to take on a fanciful nature, as if it’s impossible to entirely escape the film’s romanticised vision.
This isn’t to say that the tragedy of the Titanic should be ignored. The one good thing to come out of the film is perhaps that it succeeds in putting a human face on the tragedy where numbers and statistics remain incomprehensible. Nevertheless, as the 15th April marks the centenary of this tragedy, it is important that we put aside the Hollywood film. If we are going to remember the Titanic, let us not mourn Jack’s death; rather, remember the real men, women, and children who died that day.
They may not all have been as handsome or charming as DiCaprio, but their suffering, their lives, and their families were real. It’s time to let go of Jack and Rose.