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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Detail in 'Titanic' Strayed Off Course




For the lifelong Titanic junkie, this year's Academy Awards prompt a ... particular sinking feeling.


James Cameron's spare-no-cost film treatment of the most famous shipwreck since Ulysses' won a record-tying 11 Oscars on Monday night. The soggy 3-hour 14-minute epic, part "Far and Away" and part "The Poseidon Adventure," cost more than the original ship, and takes longer to watch than the great liner did to sink. Its special effects are among the most staggering and realistic ever filmed.


But how could Cameron mine the historical record so deeply for authentic 1912 technical information and dialogue and then paste it all so clumsily into a plastic 1990s pastiche?


Just before the ship hits the iceberg, the chief officer on the bridge yells, "Hard astarboard!" to the helmsman in his effort to direct the Titanic clear of danger. This is exactly what the officer yelled at the time. The movie helmsman, however, immediately whirls the ship's wheel to port (left), just as if he were driving a car, and the ship's bow swings that way.


In vessels like the Titanic, the ship's wheel operated like a boat's tiller: You pushed it to starboard to make the bow swing to port. Thus, the original command made sense. The way the wheels turned in the movie, neither the command nor the action that follows makes any sense at all.


That, admittedly, is a small nit to pick. It pales beside such howlers as the way Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet splash around for nearly an hour in their underwear in minus 2 degree Celsius water flooding the ship, immune to the physical laws of hypothermia until they go over the side. Or the tiresome kindergarten Marxism of a screenplay that caricatures all first-class passengers in cruel and glittering sterility and all those in steerage as lusty, good-time girls and boys.


Cultural anthropologists like C.G. Jung and Bruno Bettelheim have pointed out that every society passes down myths, legends and heroic stories from its history as both cautionary tales of life's perils and celebrations of the wit and courage with which we humans are equipped to meet them. Yet Cameron's retelling of the great cautionary tale of our century is shorn of almost every redeeming quality in human nature.


He seems embarrassed to acknowledge the overwhelming historical evidence that the class rigidity of 1912, for all its defects, produced a genuine sense of behavioral obligation on the Titanic among rich and poor alike; that the greatest number of people aboard faced death or hardship with a stoic and selfless grace that the world has wondered at for most of this century.


To say this is not to romanticize the past. Among the flood of testimony to the genuinely extraordinary behavior of most others on board, perhaps the most credible is one of the few whiners: a second-class passenger from Powell County, Montana, named Imanita Shelley.


Shelley spent most of the affidavit she offered to the U.S. Senate investigation into the Titanic tragedy complaining -- not just about the sinking, but about the accommodations, about the service, about the cold, about the food, about almost every aspect of what other passengers considered "the ship of dreams."


But despite a "great number of persons on the deck" when she left in one of the very last lifeboats, "there was practically no excitement on the part of anyone during this time," she wrote. "Not a man tried to get into a boat unless ordered to, and many were seen to strip off their clothing and wrap it around the women and children who came up half clad from their beds ... They proved themselves men in every sense of the word."


And although there was at least one documented case of a locked gate broken down, as in the film, there is far more evidence that the bulk of third-class passengers died not because the upper classes locked them below, but because it took so long to find one's way from steerage to the decks, where the lifeboats were launched. There was no direct route. By the time most arrived, the boats had gone.


These days, Hollywood, like most of America, believes we should all get in touch with our feelings. The Edwardians aboard the real Titanic did not. To them, a judicious repression of the baser emotions, particularly in times of stress and crisis, was what lifted man above the lower animals and made civilization possible.


Thus on the film Titanic, we have scores of passengers running around scheming and screaming. And on the real Titanic, we have first-class passenger Daniel W. Marvin tenderly placing his bride of three weeks in a lifeboat and telling her calmly, "You go and I'll stay awhile." And wealthy Walter Douglas turning aside his wife's entreaties to join her in safety with the explanation "No, I must be a gentleman."


In the film, when one of the world's richest men, Benjamin Guggenheim, dons evening clothes with his secretary in order "to go down like gentlemen," the two are portrayed as drunken, pretentious fools. But on the real Titanic, the real Guggenheim, by all accounts, was simply trying to approach death with dignity -- a concept we've almost forgotten.