It happened one hundred years ago tonight. I doubt if I need to spell it out… the familiar silhouette of the ship above, the media’s fixation on the anniversary the past couple weeks… you all know what I’m talking about. Everybody knows the story of the supposedly unsinkable ship with too few lifeboats that struck an iceberg near the end of her maiden voyage. I believe this story will still be known a hundred years from now, too, and maybe even two or three centuries hence, long after the actual wreckage of the ship itself has finally dissolved into unrecognizable heaps of iron oxides and passed forever into the realm of cultural mythology.
But why this story, this ship, this tragedy? There have been other shipwrecks throughout history that were every bit as tragic, some even more horrifying in nature, some with even greater loss of life. What is it about Titanic, in particular, that holds such a grip over the public’s imagination?
My own fascination with Titanic began, as I now realize so many of my interests did, with an old movie I saw on TV when I was a kid. A Night to Remember, made in 1958, was based on the 1955 non-fiction bestseller by Sir Walter Lord, which I believe was the first comprehensive book on the subject intended for a popular audience. (FYI, this book has never been out of print since its first publication nearly 60 years ago, and it’s still considered a must-have if you have a serious interest in Titanica. I’ve bought two or three copies myself over the years…) I don’t know if I understood at the time that the movie was depicting an actual event. It’s possible I did not; I was young, and it was the mid-70s, so I may have mistaken it for just another one of the fictional disaster flicks that were so popular then, and which seemed to be on the ABC Sunday Night Movie every other week. Nevertheless, I have a pretty vivid recollection of sitting cross-legged on the floor of the living room in front of our massive old wood-console TV set, utterly captivated by what I was seeing on the screen. In my memory, the room was awash with bright afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows, but to me, it was a dark, bitterly cold night somewhere in the north Atlantic. I was that caught up in the story. If I did misunderstand what I was seeing, however, it wasn’t long before I learned it had really happened, and somehow that just made the story all the more compelling to me.
Not too long after that, I developed a generalized (and, honestly, kind of ghoulish) interest in all the great disasters of history. I fondly recall a book I used to have, probably purchased through those Scholastic book sales we had at school every so often, that detailed at least a dozen of the infamous catastrophes that have befallen unsuspecting human beings over the centuries: the volcanic destruction of Pompeii, the great San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire, the Hindenburg explosion, the Black Death, and numerous shipwrecks, but the centerpiece was, of course, the sinking of Titanic, somehow, even then, the ultimate disaster story. But eventually I lost my zeal for such things, at least for a few years.
My interest was rekindled — and my emotional response to the story became more sophisticated — when I saw the film Raise the Titanic on a rented videocassette and VCR machine sometime in the early ’80s. It’s not a very good film, to be honest; adapted from Clive Cussler’s novel Raise the Titanic! (note the exclamation point, which was dropped from the movie title for some reason), it’s probably the slowest-paced “adventure” film you’re ever likely to see, and it’s surprisingly cheap-looking considering how much money was spent on its production. (One of its financial backers, Lew Grade, memorably quipped once that it would’ve been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.) And yet… there were moments in this film that sank hooks deep into my heart. I loved the sequence of the actual raising, when the hulk of the old ship, pumped full of buoyant material and wrested free of the muck at the bottom by controlled explosions, bursts above the surface of the ocean to a lush, swelling theme by John Barry (it was widely believed at the time that Titanic was more or less intact, aside from the gash torn in her side by the iceberg, so the idea was not entirely implausible), and also when she’s towed into New York City at long last, decades overdue but finally arriving, surrounded by fireboats with their water cannons blasting and cheering crowds on the piers. And I love the romantic, sentimental moment when the film’s hero, Dirk Pitt (played here by Richard Jordan, who, in my opinion, was a far better Pitt than that goofball surfer boy Matthew McConaughey), walks the waterlogged decks of the old girl to the fantail, where he raises a White Star pennant given to him by an elderly survivor. It’s the kind of scene that would probably draw titters from an audience today, in these post-ironic, sentiment-impaired, practicality-first times, but if you have a certain kind of temperament — if you believe, as I do, in symbolic gestures and that machines have their own kind of spirit even though they’re inanimate… if you, like me, are prone to wearing your heart on your sleeve and wishing for a grander life and a more noble world — well, the scene works for me. And it made a big impression on my early-adolescent self. I could so easily imagine myself doing the same thing, and feeling good about it, because it would be the right thing to do under those circumstances. Through the power of this crappy movie, somehow, Titanic — the actual ship — had become a character to me, a physical object in which I invested my feelings. (It wouldn’t be the last time I did that, either. You can see all three of these scenes in this clip, if you’ve a mind to.)
Raise the Titanic was released in 1980. Only five years later, in 1985, Dr. Robert Ballard found the real thing, as well as the truth of what happened to her that cold night in 1912: that she was utterly shattered and lies in ruined pieces. Part of me was disappointed that no Cussler-style raising would ever be possible (not that it ever really was, but now it was impossible even to imagine), but I was also fascinated by the murky, low-resolution photos that Ballard brought back. Photos of the actual ship… not a movie set, or an illustration in a book, or even the vintage black-and-white photos of her before the sinking, but of the real ship, as she was now. (Or then, I suppose, since 1985 was a long time ago.) For me, poring over those photos was like reaching through the curtain of time and touching actual history, as hyperbolic as that sounds.
Following Ballard’s discovery of the wreck, I began to count myself as a genuine Titanic buff. I wasn’t obsessed — it was merely one of many interests that I would occasionally dip into, as the mood struck me — but I read a number of books, I watched all the documentaries and fictionalized accounts I came across, and I learned a great deal about the ship and her passengers and crew.
And then came James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 film. And suddenly my weird little hobby turned into a big deal. Suddenly there were more books and videos than ever before, approaching the familiar old story from every possible angle. (My personal favorite: a conspiracy theory that claims the ship we know as RMS Titanic was actually her sister ship, Olympic; supposedly, Titanic wasn’t finished by her launch date, but the hype was running so high that White Star didn’t want to miss the sailing, so they fitted out Olympic with Titanic‘s markings, intending to secretly switch them back after the maiden voyage, when the newer ship was complete. But then came the inconvenient iceberg, with all the horrible publicity that went with it, and the real Titanic ended up spending her days pretending to be Olympic instead, because of course the owners didn’t want any more embarrassment. Yeah, I don’t buy it either.) I helped my father transform my old Galaxie into a rolling replica of the ship for Halloween (now that‘s a story!). And all of this seemed to culminate in the greatest Titanic-related event of all: a public exhibition of actual artifacts recovered from the bottom of the sea (over Dr. Ballard’s protests, for what they were worth). Of course I went to this exhibition — two separate exhibits a couple years apart, actually — and I went in as eagerly as any tourist who ever fawned over King Tut’s golden death mask. But I realized something curious as I shuffled along with the rest of the crowds. I found I wasn’t feeling what I expected to feel as I stood only inches away from the sad, abused relics of the disaster. I wasn’t pleased or awed or exalted to be in their presence, as I’d anticipated. Instead, I felt profound sadness and guilt. That hair brush… those boots… that child’s doll… this crushed pocket watch, its hands frozen at 2:20 AM, the moment the ship took her final plunge… all of these had once been the possessions of real, living, breathing human beings… possibly they were even on those people’s bodies when they went into the water that horrible, freezing-cold night… and now those items are all that are left of those people. And here we stood, basically experiencing them as if they were an evening’s entertainment before being dumped into the gift shop at the end of the show.
For the record, my feelings are now pretty much in alignment with Dr. Ballard’s. I have come to think the wreck of Titanic should be left alone. No more tourist dives, no more recovered artifacts. The organic remains of the hundreds of people that went down with her are long gone, consumed by the microscopic organisms that live at those great depths, but nevertheless, those two big pieces of the “ship of dreams” and the debris field that stretches between them are hallowed ground, a tomb. Serious scientific dives, undersea archeology… that’s one thing. But no more exploitation. The 1,514 people who died — and the 710 who survived but nevertheless had to live with the wreck for the rest of their days — deserve better than ending up as a hook to sell tacky souvenirs. The ship itself deserves better.
All of which is my way-too-longwinded way of leading up to my uncertainty of how best to mark this 100th anniversary of the sinking. Or even whether to say anything at all. But in the end, even with my ambivalence about our merchandise-and-media-driven urge to make everything into an opportunity for making a buck, and my utter disgust with the people I’ve met who seem to think a real-life tragedy happened merely to provide back story for a fictional teenage romance, all this BS seems to fade when I come back to the real story of Titanic.
To finally address my earlier question, I think what keeps this great ship and her awful fate relevant and “top of mind,” as we say in the advertising biz, is that it’s such an incredible story. The fact that she was the largest, grandest, most beautiful thing on the water at the time, and that she sank on her very first voyage, so much like divine retribution for the hubris of declaring any ship “unsinkable”; the way her passengers represented a microcosm of the society that built her, and how the outmoded mores of that society proved so inadequate at dealing with the unthinkable (just as they would be again tested, and then finally swept away altogether, with the coming of World War I only a few short years after Titanic); the mishaps and outright stupidity that led to the collision and the loss of life (what the hell was up with the Californian, anyhow?); and the rich cast of characters who populated her, seemingly all with a fascinating role to play during the sinking. (I’ll be honest, I think James Cameron was wise to make his movie nearly four hours long, despite what the film’s critics may say; he gave us time to get to know both the ship and all these wonderful characters aboard her to a far greater degree than any other Titanic film I’ve ever seen, including the seminal Night to Remember, and that made for a far more powerful reaction once the inevitable came to pass.) A Hollywood screenwriter could not have invented a better story than history provides us.
And there are so many angles through which to explore this story, too… only this week, I’ve heard a new theory about the engineering crew, none of whom survived. Recent computer models show that the ship should have rolled over in the water like the Costa Concordia did only a few months ago… and yet she didn’t. The only possible explanation is that the men down in the engine room were pumping the water from side to side as Titanic filled, doing their best to keep her on an even keel so the lifeboats could launch. They surely knew they were fighting a losing battle… and yet they fought it anyhow, to buy more time for the passengers to evacuate. The word “hero” gets thrown around pretty freely these days — too freely, in my opinion, but that’s a whole other rant. But the engine-room crew of RMS Titanic… they were genuine heroes who gave their lives in the unanswerable hope that they were helping others live. Stories like theirs are the reason why I still remain interested in the unsinkable Titanic. And it is to their memory that I’ll be raising my glass tonight.