On April 14, 1912 at 11:40 pm, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank into the frigid Atlantic Ocean in under three hours. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died in what is considered one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.
A hundred years later, Titanic still matters.
ArtsWIRE spoke to three UBC professors – History Dept. Head Danny Vickers, film studies professor Ernest Mathijs and Dept. of English professor Ira Nadel – for their thoughts about our unending fascination with this disaster.
Q: From a filmmakers and author’s point of view, how fantastical is the saga of the Titanic?
Vickers: It’s quite unusual. Almost all vessels that go down go down as a result of human action. Titanic went down when visibility was perfect, in almost crystal clear water. The sea was like a mirror, which of course meant there was an ice field, which makes it like an inland lake. So the sort of ice we’re talking about is packed ice, which would not sink a ship. But there was a lot of stuff drifting down from the north, both icepacks and icebergs. That might have been an indication. But it really is unusual for a vessel to flounder in that scenario.
Nadel: However, as early as 1886 there were books written about the possibility of a modern ocean liner meeting a disaster. That was W.T. Stead who published a book of fiction called The Sinking of the Modern Liner, and it was similar to what happened to the Titanic. A large ship leaves Liverpool on a journey to New York and is involved in a collision with a great loss of life. And ironically, Stead was on the Titanic when it went down.
Then there was another book in 1898 called Futility or The Wreck of the Titan written by an American author named Morgan Robertson. There, another ship deemed unsinkable hits an ice shelf and sinks off the coast of Newfoundland. And there was a short story from 1908 called The Ship’s Run that was a similar tale.
So there were a few works that somehow – I don’t want to say prophetically – anticipated the creation of such a ship and a disaster involving its destruction. It’s very strange.
Mathijs: We have similar imaginations in cinema. I forget what the title of the film is, or whether the entire film survives, but the ending of this film survives and there are two different endings. The ship goes down and two lovers are separated. In the European edit of the film, the gentleman jumps in the ocean to save the lady and both of them drown. And in the American edit, he saves the lady and both are rescued. So when you have the Titanic in between Europe and America and both endings play themselves out – some people get rescued, some do not. It’s a great story for a filmmaker. It can appeal to both sensibilities.
Vickers: The question this raises is, why – unless it actually was prophetic – were there so many stories like this out there? My guess is there was a ton of that sort of stuff, and we just happened to find three stories that seem to resemble the Titanic. Which raises another question, why were there a ton of them? Because steam shipping raised issues of sailing that didn’t exist before. So for instance, if you sailed to America in the 16th, 17th and 18th century, you went south to catch the trade winds, and then you went north. You never beat your way across the Atlantic. Not because it was dangerous, but because it was slower. So we invent steam shipping, and all the traditional lanes that sailors had known for years are out the window. And all that accumulated knowledge was now irrelevant.
Nadel: The destruction of the Titanic is related to a disaster literature that began with the dramatic increase of the railways, and the railway disasters that took place. And writers saw there would be a great yellow journalistic interest in accounts of machines that failed. And then it’s natural to move to something like large shipping vessels.
Q: Would the sinking of the Titanic be as significant if not for the press’ claims about how unsinkable it was leading up to its maiden voyage? Is this essentially a parable about man’s arrogance?
Vickers: I think so. I don’t think at the time people thought that way, but it is a great story. When I was a little boy my sister, who was eleven years older than me, taught me a song. And it was:
“They built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue
And they thought they built a ship that the water never goes through
But the good Lord raised his hand
Said that ship will never land
It was sad when the great ship went down.
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives
It was sad when the great ship went down.”
That’s all about pride.
Nadel: Yes, it’s also about myth. Because I think what happens is the narrative moves from fact to a quasi-fiction. And there are many fictions associated with the ship. There was supposedly an Egyptian mummy on board, and maybe the mummy had something to do with it! Mythology takes over from fact. And it’s a very interesting media event – we seem to know what happened because of the way the New York Times and other papers told the story. But a lot was added to the narrative.
Mathijs: This was very much a media event in the sense that even though this happened in the middle of the ocean, within 24 hours everyone in the world was aware of it. I read about it in a book called The Culture of Time and Space, and it uses the sinking of the Titanic as an illustration of the acceleration of the development of technology, the development of modernism and modernity and industrialization. Ira, you mentioned railways. None of this ocean traffic or railway is possible unless you have a universal agreement of time. Nations didn’t agree on time, [even with the invention of Standard Time in 1879].
Just when you think, now we’ve got a universal system, we’ve got a standard for measurement then this event happens and it challenges it, because it pushes everything into the present. Everything seems to happen at the same time.
So for a storyteller, it allows you to put an entire saga, myth, fiction, fact, all within the duration of a couple of hours, all within the present. That’s what gives it such resonance in popular culture.
A: A suite on Titanic cost £870 while the steward who helped look after the stateroom was paid £3 a month. Does the sinking of the Titanic speak to opulence and class division?
Vickers: Absolutely. For one thing, there are tables that describe the percentage of people saved. The highest percentage of people saved were first-class women and children. Ninety-five percent of first-class women were saved. And there was a huge difference, not just between the classes, but also between the crew and passengers. The crew who died outnumbered all other victims. The Titanic had a huge crew of 800 people, and almost all of them went down. They are the proletarians.
Nadel: And to support that, I was reading that only one child from the first-class section drowned. And that was because she chose to stay with her mother and father and not get in a lifeboat with her nanny and little brother. The sociology of who survived is really fascinating.
Vickers: This was a time of progressivism and muckraking and the development of socialism and all sorts of popular feeling that the world was not structured fairly. This was a classic example of it. The other thing is, for a vessel of this size, it took a really long time for the Titanic to go down. There are just so many stories about decisions that were made and class distinctions that were made evident.
Q: The way the disaster is portrayed in fiction is that after the ship hits the iceberg, there’s a clash of two values. One, of “Women and children first,” and the other of “Every man for himself.” What did those two values represent?
Nadel: The question really should be, ‘What about the cross-dressers?’ There were men who dressed as women in order to get on lifeboats. That is fascinating to me.
It’s somewhat a clash of values, but onboard, it’s really the clash of rich versus poor, between those who travelled steerage and those who travelled first-class. For anyone unfortunate to be on board, there was no talk of clash of values, it was, how do I get out of here?
Mathijs: I think the matter of values is one of reflection. Subsequent decades reflect on the sinking of the Titanic and seek to clarify their own values by comparing them to what happened onboard. But on board, it wasn’t a guiding principle.
Vickers: On board, the guiding principle was the orders of the officers. That’s really what determined what happened.
Mathijs: But for retellings of the story I think it’s an ideal excuse to put those values in there and explore them. And many of those values were in flux at the time, and to explore them from a storyteller’s point of view is fair.
Nadel: So maybe the consequence of the Titanic event is as metaphor, not as fact. You have the facts and the records. The importance over time is what it becomes metaphorically, with a clash of values and class division.
Vickers: The interesting thing to put beside the Titanic is the sinking of the Lusitania. The Lusitania was also a large, luxurious ship, but she sank in 15 minutes or less and there were no survivors. And it was historically more significant because it inched the Americans closer towards joining the war. But it’s never grabbed the public’s attention. And that’s because like most maritime disasters it happened quickly and there were no survivors.
Q: The immediate aftermath of the tragedy saw an outpour of poetry and literature, although much of it was dismissed by the New York Times as “worthless” and “intolerably bad.” Virginia Woolf was said to be fascinated by the disaster – what affect did this have on her and her work?
Nadel: Virginia Woolf with her new husband Leonard attended the official board hearings that investigated the disaster. And she was obsessed with water and writes about it continuously. And it probably originates from her being six months old, when her family would go to St. Ives in Cornwall, and they rented a house right at the edge of the sea, which becomes the focal point of her novel To The Lighthouse in 1927. In her diaries and throughout her life, she’s obsessed with the way water – particularly oceans – can destroy lives and one’s being. And of course, she dies by drowning in 1941. So the Titanic became symbolic of both the danger and the romance of the sea.
Q: James Cameron has re-released 1997’s Titanic in 3D. The film has already made $1.8 billion in worldwide box office. Why is Cameron’s telling of the Titanic saga more successful than any of the other previous adaptations?
Mathijs: Because it’s a little like the Titanic itself – it’s very arrogant. There had been previous film adaptations and they were always plagued by logistics. You need to have a really big ship and the trickery to make a little ship look like a big ship wasn’t there. And Cameron first had the technology available and he wasn’t going to give up, he wasn’t going to compromise. So the shooting of Titanic was became like the building of the Titanic. It was seen as too big to be profitable, it was arrogant, it was a challenge to overcome the odds.
I actually did a study on the pre-release writings on Titanic. It was announced as a disaster a year before the film was released. There were stories about the crew trying to rebel, about a small mutiny against Cameron, and these were picked up on by the trade press and then the mainstream media. By the time the film came out it had already sunk. One of the early headlines was, ‘This is the turkey to out gobble them all.’ And in the first couple of weeks it seemed the critics were going to be right.
But then the repeat viewings started. The novelty wore off and millions of teenagers, many of them girls, went to see Titanic again and again and again. By then James Cameron had won, and when the Oscars came around the film earned the most nominations since Ben Hur. And when Cameron won he held the Oscar in the air and said, ‘I’m the king of the world.’ And the press hated him for it, but he was right.
Vickers: It’s very interesting that it’s considered a ‘girls’ film because most maritime disaster books are aimed at a male audience. So how do you account for that?
Mathijs: It’s the Leonardo DiCaprio factor and the romance. There is a gender divide. The first part of the film, before the disaster, is the girls’ part. But then once the ship starts sinking, when it’s all about chase and rescue, that’s the boys’ part. It’s a large caricature, I know, so take it with a grain of salt. Another thing Cameron predicted was that it didn’t matter that everyone knew how it would end. Titanic showed it doesn’t matter if you know the plot, it’s how you get there. So it was a big lesson for the film industry.
Nadel: I found a piece of research that said Cameron estimated the studio would lose $100 million on the film.
Mathijs: It’s the first time that two major studios collaborated on a movie. Because even studios as large as Universal and 20th Century Fox were terrified. This was way beyond their general budget. So they had to borrow money. And so while usually they’d be competitors at each other’s throats, in this case they collaborated. And that too is unique.
Q: More people have likely shed tears over Leonardo DiCaprio’s character dying in Cameron’s Titanic than over the real victims. Has fiction done a disservice to the memory of this disaster?
Vickers: My wife thinks so. She was truly disturbed that (this week) we’re celebrating, A, the 95th anniversary of the stupidest war in history (Vimy Ridge), and B, this nautical disaster. The Titanic doesn’t need a 100th anniversary to attract attention, it has always been there.
Mathijs: It’s one of those stories that will live on, and people will find connections. The 100th anniversary is a good excuse, but you don’t need special points for that to happen. It has its own momentum.
Daniel Vickers heads the Department of History at UBC. His research interests include the social history of seafaring, early America and work and economic culture. He teaches Hist 401 at the UBC Point Grey campus.
Ira Nadel is a professor of English at UBC who specializes in the Victorians and such Modernists as Joyce, Pound and Beckett. He is a biographer who has written about Leonard Cohen, Tom Stoppard and David Mamet. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a UBC Distinguished University Scholar. He teaches ENGL 492A and ENGL 362 at the UBC Point Grey campus.
Ernest Mathijs is an associate professor of Film Studies at UBC whose main research interests include the reception of alternative cinema, cult cinema and stage performance. He is the author of The Cinema of David Cronenberg: from Baron of Blood to Cultural Hero, and 100 Cult Films. He teaches FIST 200, FIST 300, FIST 331, FIST 534b, DRAM 201, DRAM 300 and THTR 445 at the UBC Point Grey campus.
* Photo: RMS Titanic departing Southampton on April 10, 1912. Photo credit, F.G.O. Stuart (1843 – 1923)