1997, 20th Century Fox
Director: James Cameron
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet
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I wasn’t very keen to see Titanic when it first came out. A few particularly bad experiences of sea sickness in small boats, miles from land, coupled with thoughts of how terrifying it would have been to sink into the icy waters of the North Atlantic that fateful night in 1912, meant that I was not looking forward to watching the inevitable unfolding of a tragedy in which nearly fifteen hundred people died.
However, I was both surprised and moved by a film that turned out to be the most expensive to date, costing $200 million to make. The ill-fated voyage of the opulent ocean liner was represented on screen in all its glorious excess, thanks to the writing, directing and editing of James Cameron, together with a haunting soundtrack from James Horner. The film went on to receive fifteen Academy awards and was the top grossing film of all time, taking over $1.8 billion at the box office – double the amount of the previous record holder, Jurassic Park. It crossed the lines of age, gender and race in a way that few films seem to manage.
Titanic presents the fictional love story between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) which takes place aboard the historical setting of the famously ’unsinkable’ ship. It is a story that perhaps we can all, in some ways, relate to. Although, stereotypically, we think that young women are looking for romance from films, while men crave for adventure, in fact all of us, if we are honest, long for both.
This is a film of contrast and comparison. Cameron gives us both intimate details of the voyage and the grand spectacle of it all. He is able to contrast all that is arrogant and selfish in humanity with the sacrifice and dignity that we can, at our best, embody so nobly. Commenting on the film, he said, ’Titanic is not just a cautionary tale – a myth, a parable, a metaphor for the ills of humankind. It is also a story of faith, courage, sacrifice and above all else, love.’
A Story of Towering Pride
Titanic really aspires to be not just a ’parable, a metaphor for the ills of humankind’, but a ’story of faith and love’, so it is certainly worth stopping to ask how such a movie compares with the Bible – the greatest story of faith and love, sacrifice and redemption. After all, Christians believe that the Bible is not only a ’story of faith’, but the story. It may well pay to compare the story of the Titanic with original script of the Bible.
Perhaps among the Bible’s many narratives, the one that compares most closely to Titanic is the story of the Tower of Babel, which is found in its opening book, Genesis. With the same ambition of the Titanic’s shipbuilders, the people of Babel decided to build a tremendous tower ’with it’s top in the heavens’. The moral of the biblical story is that humanity had decided, with new-found technology, to try to usurp God’s power. Seeing what was happening, God decided that such pride and arrogance could not go unpunished. The tower fell into ruin, and the proud people who tried to build it were ’scattered all over the face of the earth’.
I remember seeing a book illustration that helped you visualise the size of an ocean liner by standing it on end and comparing it to one of the world’s tallest buildings.
The Titanic was a skyscraper at sea. It expressed both the technological prowess of its day and the pride and optimism of the people who built her. The owner, J. Bruce Ismay, is portrayed in the film as saying that he selected the name ’Titanic’ to ’convey sheer size . . . and size means stability, luxury, and above all strength’.
The word ’Titanic’ is derived from the word ’Titan’, and the Titans were gigantic gods in Greek mythology. They were the twelve children of Uranus and Gaia – Heaven and Earth.
The Titanic was acclaimed for its great size and its seeming invincibility, and proclaimed to be the ’Ship of Dreams’.
Clip One: Setting Sail
It is the present day, and an elderly woman is talking directly to camera. She is reminiscing about the Titanic, ’the ship of dreams’. ’And it was. It really was,’ she says, wistfully. The picture fades, and we see the bow end of the old boat, resting, rusting in its murky, blue watery grave. And the picture again fades, to replace the underwater image with a gleaming, pristine boat, sitting in Southampton dock on sunny day.
The harbour is a frenzy of busyness and excitement, as passengers get ready to board, and friends and family crowd to watch them. A shiny red Model-T Ford is winched onto the ship, as below, a line of cars draws up. From one of them steps a beautiful and clearly wealthy girl, together with her fiancé and her mother. It is Rose. She appears quite unmoved by the amazing sight that towers before her, observing sniffily that the Titanic doesn’t even look as big as the Mauritania. Oh it is, replies her fiancé, smugly – in fact, it’s a hundred feet longer, and much more luxurious.
Rose’s mother surveys the scene with something approaching scepticism. ’So this is it’, she says. ’This is the ship they say is unsinkable’. To which the man replies, proudly:
’God himself could not sink this ship.’
Flying in the Face of God
A survivor of the real Titanic, Eva Hart, recalled that her mother refused to go to sleep while aboard the maiden voyage, ’because she had this premonition, solely based on the fact that she said to declare a vessel unsinkable was flying in the face of God’. Of course, in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, it is God, who brings the prideful building project to ruin. But for the people on board the Titanic, it’s an encounter with an iceberg, which brings disaster upon them.
Premonitions and suspicions aside, the real enemies of the Titanic that fateful day were within. The decision was made by the ship’s owners and captain to press on, at full speed, across the cold, dark waters of the North Atlantic, despite the fact that icebergs presented a very real danger. They were too preoccupied with the pride and prestige of achieving the fastest ever transatlantic crossing to worry that the ship might hit an iceberg and sink. After all, they had told the world that it was unsinkable, and unsinkable they believed it to be.
Although it’s an iceberg that brings down the Titanic, God does have a role in the film – at least, he gets a mention. First, there is the music that is played just before the ship sinks. The band famously played on as the liner went down. Such hymns as ’Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ and ’Nearer My God to Thee’, became the soundtrack to an unimaginable disaster. God features, too, in the prayers and comments of those who turn in desperation to him for help. As the terrified passengers race to the highest point of the ship to escape the rising water, one reads from the Bible: ’Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’ It’s a comment to which Jack sarcastically asks, ’You want to walk a little faster through that valley?’ Yet, the God implied by these appeals for mercy is one who does not intervene.
Clip Two: The Sinking
A seaman stands on deck, keeping watch through the night. He surveys the darkness before him through binoculars. Suddenly, he looks scared. There is a huge iceberg ahead, and it’s too close for comfort – far too close. The Titanic has been set on ’full speed ahead’ to break the transatlantic crossing record, despite the possibility of danger from icebergs. The seaman sends the message to the bridge: ’Iceberg! Iceberg!’ It’s passed frenetically on, and the officers send an order to the engine room.
The ship’s huge iron engine shafts grind to a halt, and then crank the propeller into reverse. But it’s too late, of course. The ship cannot turn in time, and hits the ice. Water cascades through the gash in the liner’s side, while bodies cascade out. The ship’s captain is woken, and enters the bridge. ’What was that?’ he asks his colleague, Mr Murdoch. ’Iceberg,’ comes the reply. The captain knows from Murdoch’s expression that this is a fatal blow.
Elsewhere, as people begin to get the measure of what’s happening, the lower class passengers are locked downstairs on their deck, so that those in first-class can get to the lifeboats. The violinist in a string quintet starts playing ’Nearer My God to Thee’, and his colleagues, who were leaving, return, and join in. And as the music plays, the panic sets in around them.
The captain stands at the bridge, waiting, as the water rises. We see the designer of the Titanic, the man who dreamed this unsinkable vessel into being, standing in his luxurious quarters, realising that this ship is indeed sinkable after all. He checks his watch, and sets a clock on his mantelpiece. He knows that there is nothing he can do. Everywhere, people are scrambling, shouting, running, looking for lifeboats, as the water sweeps onto the upper deck. We see the captain for one last time, as the water pressure smashes the windows on the bridge, and the sea consumes him.
Outside, the water surrounds one of the glorious red funnels that were the hallmark of the liner. Its weight sends the huge tower crashing like a tree being felled, and it crushes all in its path as it falls. Meanwhile, in the mayhem, Jack has found Rose on deck. They have to stay on board for as long as possible, he says. The water is freezing, and it is filling up the lower decks, cascading through the ballroom and the opulent corridors of first class. It is tearing through the cages of the lower decks, where hundreds of men, women and children are trapped.
On the upper deck, a clergyman recites verses from the Bible: there will be no more sorrow or pain, he says, ’The old world has passed away.’ Terrified passengers cling to his words – and to his hands. Suddenly, all the lights go out. And the whole scene is cast into an eerie, dark silence for a matter of seconds. It is the calm before the storm. Suddenly, the ship rips in two, or almost in two, as the first half sinks down headfirst. Bodies are flying everywhere, as the second half – still joined to the first at its bottom – is hoisted vertically by the downward force.
Jack and Rose have clambered to the bow of the liner, and cling on as it rises higher in the air, until it sits vertically, a colossal skyscraper in the sea that is about to descend into the depths forever. They hang on to the bars for dear life, as, like a rollercoaster ride, the second half of the ship begins to plummet. Jack shouts to Rose to take a deep, deep breath on his command, then to kick towards the surface, and keep kicking . . . and to hold his hand and never let go. ’This is it. Here we go!’ The ship is disappearing into the water, and they are the last people to take the plunge. Jack screams to Rose: ’We’re gonna make it, Rose. Trust me!’ And at that, the waters close on the bow, forever – at the very spot where Rose and Jack had fallen in love.
The Folly of Human Arrogance
The question that this film raises in my mind is whether we, in the twenty-first century, have fallen into the same dreaming innocence as the passengers of that ill-fated ocean liner, who were dancing and dining while the ’ship of dreams’ sailed toward destruction. They did not contemplate the fate that awaited them, either from the iceberg or from the terrible and tragic events that were threatening to unfold across Europe and the world after 1912. Confident in their wealth and technological prowess, and convinced that, should earthly treasures fail, a loving God would step in to rescue them, the ship carried on regardless.
Like them, we tend to forget about the past all too easily, and frequently ignore what the future seems to hold. Could our own ignorance carry us toward a similar fate today? Perhaps this hugely popular film will help to remind us of the folly of human arrogance, and sound a warning shot across our bows.
In 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic sank, the author Morgan Robertson wrote a novel, Futility, which told the story of a British ship called the Titan. It, like the Titanic, was on its maiden voyage from Britain to New York in the month of April with two thousand people on board. While it was attempting to cross the Atlantic in record time, it, too, struck an iceberg and sank. Most on board also died because, as with the Titanic, there were not enough lifeboats. Could this have been an amazing coincidence, or a prophetic parable?
The twentieth century was characterised as the age of ideology, the time of the ’isms’: communism, socialism, Nazism, liberalism, humanism, scientism, and so on. Everywhere, such ideologies nurtured the idea that we humans could progress towards a better world without the help of God; they made us believe that we could bring about the ideal society, whether by revolution, racial genocide or scientific technology. Such an attitude is betrayed in Titanic, of course, when Rose’s fiancé proudly boasts that ’even God himself could not sink her.’
But she did sink. And other idols have sunk, too. Nazism, of course, was forever disgraced by the horrors of its concentration camps and gas chambers. The Soviet Union and its dream of communism seemed to crumble, at least in the West, along with the Berlin Wall. Around the globe, socialist nations are ever more eager to establish ’free’ economies. Even science, which for so long has been hailed as a saviour, threatens to behave like Frankenstein’s monster, which turned on its own creators. Most new discoveries and technologies can be used for good, but frequently they also threaten destruction.
Our Anchor in the Storms of Life
When we look at the past, all our major ideological constructions seem to have failed and been tossed onto the scrap heap of history. Only one compelling claim to the truth remains convincing. We still have one secure hope, one way of seeing and understanding our place in the world: Christianity. The church has lived through two millennia because its founder, Jesus Christ, remains the same – yesterday, today and forever.
On the fateful night of the Titanic’s downfall, passengers who somehow still believed the hype, even refused to get in the lifeboats, despite being told that the ship was going down. They clung to their belief that the ship was unsinkable – and were actually offended when officers told them to evacuate, when they had paid such enormous sums of money for luxury accommodation. Other passengers were unable to get a place on the lifeboats because of the privileged few, who felt no concern for anyone but themselves. As a result, many of the boats, which were built to hold up to sixty people, left the Titanic with only fifteen aboard.
Through this film, the Titanic has been ’raised’ for another generation of people to feel the impact of its tragic demise. It is an important warning against selfishness and arrogance, as well as a wonderfully positive affirmation of love, which transcends all lines of class, wealth and status.
Jesus Christ demonstrated the supreme act of love in human history, by dying on our behalf, and being raised from the dead. If, as a race, we are sinking like the Titanic, then he has provided a lifeboat and we must all climb aboard. To miss it is to sink and die. Too many of us today continue to believe that the world is secure and safe, and that we’re fine to press on, full-speed ahead into the darkness. But we need Jesus – and there is more than enough room for everyone at the Cross.