Even though I tend to watch more action movies, comedies and sci-fi/fantasy movies than anything else, I can enjoy pretty much any kind of movie you throw at me. Some of my favourite movies are dramas. There are several documentaries that I’ve really enjoyed. And yes, I can enjoy a well-made romance film.
To wrap up my True Stories Movie month, it’s time to look at what is the most profitable movie of all-time that’s based on a real event. Of the four movies I’m looking at, this one incorporates the most fictional elements, but it does so to enhance the emotional elements of the film. It’s also in a 3-way tie for both the most Academy Award wins in history (11), and the most Academy Award nominations in history (14). Furthermore, it held the record for the highest worldwide earnings for 12 years, when Avatar broke the record. Both of these movies were directed by James Cameron.
I’ve already looked at one of the other movies that earned 11 Academy Awards – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. The third is Ben Hur (1959). Titanic won the Best Picture award, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best original Dramatic Score, Best Original Song for Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. It also received a nomination for Best Makeup, and both actresses who portrayed the Rose DeWitt Bukater character received a nomination for their acting (Kate Winslet as the young Rose, and Gloria Stuart as the elderly Rose).
Another thing Titanic has in common with Return of the King, is Bernard Hill. Hill played King Theoden in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and he plays Captain Edward John Smith here. That also means that Hill was in the first two movies that earned over $1 billion.
Its initial theatrical run earned $1.8 billion. Not only did it become the first ever billion dollar movie, but it nearly reached $2 billion. In 2012, the movie was re-released in 3D, where it earned another $300 million, pushing it past the $2 billion mark. It still remains the third highest grossing movie of all-time, only surpassed by Avatar ($2.790 billion – $2.74 in its initial release) and Avengers: Endgame ($2.797 billion). It took 6 years for another movie to become the second movie to pass the $1 billion mark (Return of the King in 2003), but ever since 2008’s The Dark Knight, there’s been at least one billion dollar movie a year, save for the fact that 2020 hasn’t seen its billion dollar movie yet.
Titanic also remains high on the all-time ticket sales list, at number 5 (Gone with the Wind is #1). What’s remarkable about those numbers though, is that the movie didn’t have that great of an opening weekend, with only $28 million. In fact its highest grossing day was in February of 1998, more than 8 weeks into its run, with $13 million on a Saturday. It stayed at #1 at the box office for 15 weeks. It stayed in theaters for 10 months in North America, which used to be fairly common, but is relatively unheard of these days. It’s thought that positive word of mouth, in addition to an estimated 7% of teenage girls seeing the movie multiple times, helped keep the movie in first place for that long. But the movie also resonated with men – in fact it’s known as one of the films that make men cry.
Despite the fact that this movie was critically acclaimed and it earned a lot of money, it’s not without criticisms, as well as a touch of backlash. Some criticism’s I’ve seen compare it to A Night to Remember (a movie about the Titanic from 1958). A Night To Remember was also well received at the time, and a number of historians and survivors alike considered that movie far more historically accurate. There are also a number of scenes that Titanic borrows from A Night To Remember, although in many cases, they reflect actual events and witness accounts. Cameron also spoke about how he took some inspiration from the film.
The backlash might have actually given birth to the “hater” movement that is present in movie culture to this day. The backlash started quickly, and grew widespread within months. Some made fun of the dialogue (there are cheesy lines, but most of them are thoughtfully cheesy). The backlash also grew significantly when James Cameron shouted “I’m the king of the world!” in his Oscar speech. I’ll agree with this much – Cameron throwing in that famous line into his speech deserves to be mocked.
But that’s enough about the movie’s reaction, because there’s a lot to talk about with this epic romance/disaster film. I also won’t get into the development of this movie too much – I’ll just skim through the basic details.
Cameron had been interested in the Titanic for a while. He considered the Titanic the “Mount Everest” of shipwrecks, and wanted to be part of an exposition to see the ship in its final graveyard. He funded an IMAX film to shoot actual footage of the wreckage, but at that point he decided it might be worth doing a film, to help pay for his expedition. It wasn’t “because I particularly wanted to make the movie … I wanted to dive to the shipwreck.”
He started working on the script, pitching it as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic.” 20th Century Fox was a bit nervous about the idea, seeing how it was different from his previous Sci-Fi/Action movies, but they wanted a long-term relationship with the director. The publicity of shooting the wreck itself also helped convince them. The film crew dove down to the wreck 12 times in 1995. On one such dive they actually bumped into the wreck, causing damage to the Captain’s quarters and the entrance to the Grand Staircase. Spending that much time with the wreck influenced Cameron’s approach to the movie as well. “It wasn’t just a story, it wasn’t just a drama … It was an event that happened to real people who really died. Working around the wreck for so much time, you get such a strong sense of the profound sadness and injustice to it.” It gave him a strong sense of responsibility to do the film right.
He spent 6 months researching all of the Titanic’s crew and passengers, wanting to honour everyone who died during the sinking. With help from historians, he created a detailed timeline of the sinking. They also worked hard on creating scale models as accurate to the original ship as possible. They acquired the original ship’s blueprints, and they rebuilt most of the ship to full scale (removing redundant sections of course). They rebuilt the internal sets as accurately as they could, basing them on photographs, although they widened the Grand Staircase by about 30% and re-enforced it with steel girders.
Filming began in July of 1996, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. They hired a full-time etiquette coach to help the first class actors to portray upper class mannerisms properly, although some critics pointed out some inconsistencies. For the most part, filming was consistent, yet there were some issues. There was one moment when an angry crew member put PCP into the soup that a number of people were eating. It sent more than 50 people to the hospital, including Bill Paxton (portraying a modern day treasure hunter). Cameron managed to vomit before the drug took a hold on him. They never caught who drugged the soup.
The filming grew from its initial 138 day shoot to 160. During the filming, many cast members caught the cold, flu, or kidney infections after spending hours in the cold, including Winslet. Some actors complained, although Leonardo DiCaprio said there was no point where he felt like he was in danger during filming. The Screen Actors Guild investigated but found nothing was inherently unsafe about the set or Cameron’s demanding filming methods. The filming cost eventually ballooned to $200 million, making it by far the most expensive movie in history at the time. Fox started to panic and suggested the movie cut out a full hour. Cameron refused, telling Fox, “You want to cut my movie? You’re going to have to fire me! You want to fire me? You’re going to have to kill me!” The executives didn’t want to start over, because they’d lose all the money they had invested already.
In the end however, Titanic earned back far more than its budget.
As for the movie itself, Titanic is very good. As much as there are a number of fictional elements within the movie, it feels like an authentic recreation of the most famous shipwreck in history. It was the first movie to portray the ship breaking in half during its sinking, which most historians agree is how it sank. For the most part, it’s very respectful of the real world people portrayed in the movie. Well, save for First Officer William Murdoch. In the movie, he’s shown as shooting two passengers during a chaotic moment. It’s a great scene, but his surviving ancestors complained that it damaged Murdoch’s heroic reputation. Cameron apologized in the DVD commentary, and donated to the William Murdoch Memorial Prize. He also defended his portrayal of Murdoch by mentioning he launched half of his lifeboats before his counterpart even launched one, showcasing his heroism.
The love story between Rose and Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) is well told. It also serves to give the movie an emotional core – to help you care about everyone who’s dying during the sinking. It makes the movie feel more personal, especially when you go back and forth between Young Rose’s story, and Old Rose’s recollection of her experiences. You see two people who, despite their very different upbringings, are kindred spirits who need each other. The decision to kill off DiCaprio’s character also feels necessary to give the movie its full emotional impact. It helps that both DiCaprio and Winslet are brilliant in their roles. Specifically, this movie turned DiCaprio into an international star.
But this movie works on an emotional level beyond the main characters. It’s helped by the brilliant use of the original soundtrack, in addition to other sound elements. There is a little bit of historic dispute as to whether the band did play music outside as the ship was sinking, but from a filmmaking standpoint, it works very well. It’s especially effective when they play their final song together, “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. It’s a somber song intercut with the chaotic moment of the Grand Staircase being flooded, with a number of people struggling to get out on time, while other people lay in bed accepting their fate.
As much as this movie works very well as a romance and as a drama, the sinking half of the movie also works very well as an action movie. There’s a good pacing balance between the chaotic moments, and the calm, quiet moments to give the audience time to breathe. Some of these moments are tragic, while others are relatively lighthearted. But what might be the most dramatically effective moment in the entire movie happens after the ship finally sinks. It’s when there are hundreds of people in the freezing water, screaming and struggling for life. There’s no music, the lighting is low, and as time goes on the screaming dies down. It’s a haunting scene that lasts exactly as long as it needs to in order to get its point across.
The framing device of using modern-day scenes (as in 1997) also helps sell the movie. Paxton’s character is obsessively searching for a very rare and large diamond, believed to have sunk with the Titanic. Through Rose’s story of her journey, he realizes that the diamond isn’t what’s important. It’s all the lives lost that truly matter. It reflects the lessons that Cameron himself learned while he filmed the wreckage.
The movie ends with old Rose dropping this treasure into the ocean, having possessed it all this time. Some have criticized this moment as dumb, but it’s a moment that’s fairly deep. It’s not about tossing away an extremely valuable treasure. It’s about returning her heart to the ocean, where she lost the young man who saved her in so many ways. Why didn’t she sell it? It was a theme earlier in the movie where her mother wanted her to marry a controlling, potentially abusive husband, just so they could keep their family name in good standing (they were basically out of money). Rose wanted to prove she could make it without either marrying her arranged husband, or by selling an expensive piece of jewelry that he bought her.
After that, you’ve got a brief scene showing her lying in bed, with pictures from her life. These pictures show her doing a number of the things Jack promised to teach her. The movie is unclear as to whether Rose dies in that bed or not, leaving it up to interpretation. But the movie ends with a beautiful scene where she arrives at the Grand Staircase, re-uniting with Jack, as a number of other deceased passengers applaud her arrival as if they’ve been waiting for her. As a nice touch, the clock reads 2:20, the exact minute that the Titanic completely sunk into the ocean. Whether that scene is fantasy or heaven, it’s the perfect way to end the movie.
Here’s another interesting touch in Titanic. If you remove the credits, the movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, which is exactly how long it took for the Titanic to sink. Whether that’s intentional or not, it just feels right.
I’m not quite sure if Titanic deserves all of its 11 Academy Awards. It’s not without its flaws, like how it may have exaggerated some of the chaotic moments during the sinking, or how some of the in-movie conspiracies against Jack’s character feel a bit overdone. But Titanic is an overall brilliant movie that finds a near perfect balance between fact and fiction. The soundtrack is both dramatic and memorable. Visually speaking, it’s fantastic in pretty much every way. It captures both the majesty of how beautiful a ship the Titanic was, and how tragic the story of its maiden voyage is. But most importantly, it’s a rare movie that seamlessly contains a little bit of something for everyone. I would recommend this movie to almost everyone, except that it feels like most people have seen it anyway.
This was my first time seeing the movie since before Avatar came out, and it very quickly reminded me of how good of a movie it really is.
I haven’t yet decided what I’m doing for movies next month. I might do another Disney theme, since I’ve done that every year since I started posting more about movies on this blog. If I do that, it’ll either be a live-action remake or a straight-to-video theme. I’m not sure which of those scares me more. But since I looked at Lord of the Rings last month, and True Story Movies this month, it also means I’ve looked at 2 of the 3 11 Academy Award movies in two months. I might do a classic Hollywood Epic theme month just to look at Ben-Hur by the end of April. If I do that, then I’ll likely look at some other legendary epics, like Gone with the Wind, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus, and Citizen Kane. Or I might save that until after I finish with my next Disney movie project, because I’ll probably need a really good month by the time I’m done with that.