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Crash course
Categories: Film, Utrinque Paratus

James Cameron’s revisionist history is a tragedy

By Leigh E. Rich and Lisa Tiger

Titanic is doomed from the beginning. Outrageously extravagant and poorly constructed, she is the monster-child of ambition and technology. The three-and-a-half-hour travesty is unpreventable. Weighted with Hollywood formulas and historical inaccuracies, nothing can save writer/director James Cameron’s sinking epic.

Unlike her legendary namesake, Cameron’s Titanic is hollow: He gives us two films, recklessly thrown together. The first is a period romance, unsuccessfully emulating Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient, set on the desolate waters of the Atlantic instead of the barren deserts of Africa. The second is a new-and-improved rendition of the sinking of the Titanic.

For most of the movie, Cameron leaves Titanic’s grandeur and history docked in Southampton and focuses on the forced love story between firstclass passenger Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and third-class artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio). Unhappily engaged to the rich and overbearing Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane), Rose is the typical damsel in distress whose ambitions are squashed by societal prescriptions. Desperate to escape the imminent marriage, Rose mounts the rail of Titanic and Jack swoops in for the rescue. It is a rescue, we are told, both literal and metaphoric. Jack’s worry-free ways and unconventional love promise to free Rose from a life she hasn’t chosen.

Despite blockbuster successes like Terminator 2 and True Lies, Cameron falters with the epic love story. Even though he follows Minghella’s award-winning recipe, the love between Jack and Rose remains half-baked. Jack never even woos Rose—he need not pursue what is easily caught. And Cameron knows better than to waste footage creating their forbidden love when there’s a ship waiting to sink.

Thus, we never really care about Cameron’s characters. Far from The English Patient’s exotic and difficult Count Almásy, Jack is too good to be true. His poverty liberates him, his artistic talents rival Picasso’s, and he cleans up too easily. He is both a worldly ruffian and an all-American boy-next-door. His perfection is grating.

Jack’s character is as flat as his rival suitor’s, who hauntingly resembles the evil magician from Frosty the Snowman. Both leading men overpower Rose—one with affection, the other with affluence—and she’s helpless and meek whenever they’re around. When she’s alone, detached from Jack’s ever-present embrace, she somehow musters an ambition and courage unbecoming a lady of the Edwardian era. Ax-wielding, beer-swilling, and right-hooking those in her way, we’ve seen this Rose once before: helping Arnold Schwarzenegger save the world from apocalyptic disaster.

The love triangle is unconvincing and duller than watching ice melt. Would a woman in the early 1900s, as bound by social limitations as by her corset, risk all for a man of a lower class? Plausibility aside, the passion necessary to fuel such a tale doesn’t exist. Instead, Rose and Jack merely hinder Cameron’s true purpose—raising the grand Titanic from her frigid depths.

This he does beautifully. Using actual footage of the 80-year-old wreck and computer-enhanced, life-sized models, Cameron’s Titanic surpasses imagination. The spectacle is breathtaking. But Cameron makes the audience wade through two hours of Jack-and-Rose tripe before unveiling this feat of technology. And Cameron needs the collision to propel his story: The indistinct iceberg is barely spotted, the colossal boat turns too late, the imperfect hull cracks on impact. And the water rushes in.

As the vessel evocatively splits in two, we can’t help but be moved.

Unfortunately, Cameron again strays from history as panic sweeps the decks. Instead of creating an historically and visually accurate Titanic triumph, he offers a monster movie pocked with shallow, fictional characters. Real heroes are pushed aside for flashier, less complicated ones, and fact folds into fiction. Captain E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), who never so much as scraped paint in his 27 years of service, comes across as incompetent and uncaring, and his officers seem equally culpable.

In Cameron’s version, lookout Frederick Fleet is distracted from his post because he’s watching Rose and Jack make out on deck just before the collision occurs, and White Star Line director Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) mercilessly sneaks aboard a lifeboat as Cal Hockley bribes First Officer Murdoch for a seat in another. Ismay has long been acquitted, and nothing in history suggests such an offer between Murdoch and a passenger. By telling such fictions, Cameron unnecessarily robs graves.

Other errors are as egregious: To suit his intense visuals, the band in Cameron’s tale plays the somber “Nearer My God to Thee” as the watertight compartments flood and the boat dips into the ocean. In actuality, Titanic’s band played light, cheerful music such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Autumn”—a fact discussed in nearly every book written about the disaster.

While Cameron never promises a documentary, his tale of diamond hunters and spurned lovers toting guns does disservice to Titanic’s victims and survivors. With a budget twice that of Waterworld, he could have afforded an historian. Or even a $6 copy of Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember.

But Cameron is caught in his own love story—between himself and his camera—and the $190-million Titanic is inaccurate and disappointing. It’s mere costume jewelry: dazzling to look at, but a forgery just the same.

Titanic is playing at Foothills (742-6174), De Anza (745-2240), Century Gateway (792-9000) and Century Park (620-0750) cinemas. 

Rich, L. E., & Tiger, L. (1997, December 24). Crash course: James Cameron’s revisionist history is a tragedy. Tucson Weekly.

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