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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #336: Titanic


An old-school Hollywood epic, James Cameron’s “Titanic” nearly sank its director. Cameron built a giant scale of the ship for the sinking scenes, had the interior rooms reproduced exactly as originally built, yelled at his crew when things went wrong, had cast members stay in the water for so long many of them got sick with the flu and ballooned the film’s budget to $200 million, 66 percent over its original budget of $120 million. Studio executives panicked and wanted to cut the running time of the 3-hour epic, but Cameron said they would have to fire him first. He ended up getting the last laugh as his movie grossed over $2 billion worldwide, a record later beaten by his own “Avatar,” and won 11 Academy Awards. It also gave the world that overplayed Céline Dion song, but you can’t win them all.

When “Titanic” was released in the Holiday season of 1997, my family and I were living in South America, so it was three hours of Spanish subtitles. Back then I wasn’t as obsessed as I am with movies today and was not very aware of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the movie. I think it was my mother who asked if we wanted to go see “Titanic” one weekend and my brother and I casually agreed. The Romeo and Juliet angle was not too enticing for us, but based on some photos I had seen in a magazine I thought it would at least have good special effects. I didn’t expect the movie to be so engaging it would feel as though I was onboard the ship for those three hours. The film has been derided over the years for its long running time and cheesy love story, but the first time you see it you are in for quite a cinematic experience.

Of course the main objection anyone who has never seen it is the obvious fact that we all know how the movie will end: the ship sinks. Yet Cameron, who also wrote the script, saw the objection coming and even sinks the ship in an animated sequence hours before the demise of the actual ship. Now the audience know exactly what will happen and how long it will take, so why bother watching? Because we are taken aboard the ship from the point of view of one the passengers, and the ship is recreated so faithfully it feels as though you are there in 1912.

But the story actually begins in 1996 when treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) is searching the Titanic’s room for one particular object: the Heart of the Ocean, a priceless diamond. One of his underwater robots finds a box containing hand-drawn portraits of women, one of which is wearing the diamond. Rose Dawson (Gloria Stuart), a woman a hundred years old, sees the drawing on television and recognizes it immediately as she was the one who posed for it while aboard the ship. She calls Lovett who invites him to go back to the Titanic in the hope of getting more clues about the diamond’s location. What he gets instead is the story of a lifetime.

Rose’s story exemplifies the class divide of the era. Her younger self (Kate Winslet) boards the Titanic in Southampton, England, along with her mother (Frances Fisher) and her fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Hockley is the heir to a steel fortune in Pittsburgh and he would solve Rose’s and her mother’s financial problems. They go to the upper decks, in the full luxury of first class.

Below deck lies the third class passengers: European working class immigrants who have used up all of their money to board the world’s biggest ship in order to move to America and hopefully gain fortune in the new world. Amongst them is Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American free spirit who won his ticket in a poker game mere minutes before the ship left the docks.

Jack’s and Rose’s paths meet when Rose decides she cannot bear to marry the arrogant Cal and would rather jump off the ship. Luckily, Jack manages to dissuade her by threatening to jump with her. As a reward for saving Rose’s life, Jack is invited to dine with the rich people in first class. He manages to blend in only thanks to the help of nouveau riche Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) who understands where Jack is coming from. After rubbing shoulders with the stuffy rich people, Jack takes Rose to the third class ballroom where people actually let loose and dance.

It is through these social differences that Jack and Rose bond throughout the voyage. Whereas Rose is confined to the restrictive behavior that comes with being rich, Jack encourages her to be free and dare to go after the life she really wants, not the one her mother wants.

Whatever dreams they have of staying together are cut short once the ship hits the fateful iceberg. Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), the ship’s builder explains to Captain John Smith (Bernard Hill) and company executive J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) that the ship cannot stay afloat with five compartments flooded and will sink in a matter of hours. “But this ship can’t sink” says Ismay! Such was the arrogance of the men who built this ship. They thought they were invincible.

As the water rushes into the cabins, the ship’s class system leads to deadly consequences. Everyone has heard the saying “women and children first,” but back then it was “first class passengers first, third class waits behind locked doors.” Coupled with the fact there wasn’t enough lifeboats for half of the people onboard, this ship was a disaster waiting to happen.

The movie deserves every Award it won for special effects. The sinking scenes are spectacular. Water bursts into cabins destroying everything in its path, the ship lifts out of the ocean and cracks in half, leading to one of the most shocking and darkly funny shots: a passenger falling from the top and hit the propeller on the way down. Supporting characters we have met during the movie’s long duration meet a grisly death as they fall into the icy water, drown, or get crushed by debris. You know it was coming, but you had no idea Cameron would create such a vivid recreation of one the biggest disasters of the 20th century.

The film launched the career of both Winslet and DiCaprio, cemented Cameron’s reputation as a task master who gets results and was later considered as “one of the films that make men cry.” I have to admit, that scene when the mother is reading her kids to sleep so they’re not awake when the water gets in their room, it got me kind of misty.

But that Céline Dion song? I think even James Cameron admitted he’s sick of it.  

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