Cinema was still a relatively new hybrid of art and technology when the RMS Titanic met its fate. But the movies wasted no time taking on a disaster that seemed to expose the hubris of embracing the new too hardily. From the start, film wove the true with the fictional, a habit enjoyed right up to director James Cameron’s 1997 romantic epic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the White Star Line-crossed lovers Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater.
The first silent of merit is celebrating its own centennial. “Saved From the Titanic” was released just a month after the sinking. The one-reeler featured American actress Dorothy Winifred Gibson, who’d been a passenger on the ship. Other early efforts that utilized the ship’s ruin if not the vessel’s name: “Atlantis” (1913) and “Atlantic” (1929).
World War II saw the German-made “Titanic” (1943), a propaganda effort intended to exploit the oceanliner’s misfortune as a rank example of British incompentence. But the tale of people facing a heretofor unfathomable disaster sank at the box office.
“Regular bombing raids on German cities by the combined American and British air forces did not whet the public’s appetite for a disaster,” according to the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian media and Internet education website. “The Nazi censors yanked it from circulation when they discovered that German audiences were still far too sympathetic toward the British passengers despite the obvious propaganda quotient.”
There remain three vastly notable films about the disaster.
- “Titanic” (1953): Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen won the best-original-screenplay Oscar for this tale of romantic woe and reckoning. Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb star as the fictional Sturges, first-class passengers whose marriage has floundered. A fresh-faced Robert Wagner plays a nice Midwestern fella smitten with the wealthy couple’s daughter.
- “A Night to Remember” (1958): Movie purists and Titanic historians often hail this British take on the disaster as the best. It is indeed wondrous in its restraint. The film, based on Walter Lord’s book, did not include fictional characters but hewed to accurate depictions of the class hierarchies that doomed most of the third-class passengers who weren’t allowed on deck until lifeboats had left.
- “Titanic” (1997 and 2012): Writer-director Cameron’s titanic hit – which was re-released last week in 3-D – was the first film to sail past the billion-dollar box office beacon. It was nominated for 14 Oscars and won 11, including best picture and best director. It’s tarnished some by its over-the-top flourishes: Billy Zane wielding a gun, really? Celine Dion ruled the airwaves – and then some – with “My Heart Will Go On,” which won an Oscar.