Titanic: A Critical Appraisal
Titanic as Romance and History
James Cameron’s epic film Titanic, the most expensive film in history, swept the 1998 Oscars and has been both praised and scorned by critics. The Christian community has been especially tough on Cameron and what they properly sense to be an overly romanticized and unnecessarily cheesy retelling of the historic maiden voyage and untimely ending of the largest moving man-made object of its day. Many people who wanted to see a historic drama with special effects, realistic sets, and period costumes were surprised to learn that they would also have to endure a romantic love story, complete with frontal nudity, which celebrated an adulterous affair between a young third class steerage passenger and a wealthy first class socialite who is engaged to be married.
Although many of my initial suspicions were justified when I saw Titanic, I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story. I would like to offer some guidelines that might assist those who are struggling with an interpretation, or who may be wondering if they too would enjoy this film.
First, I believe that one must realize that there are actually two stories within the film. The main story is not that of the Titanic itself but rather the romantic liaison between Jack Dawson, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Rose De Witt Bukatar, played by Kate Winslet. The second story, the one bearing the film’s title, is the tale of one of the greatest disasters of the modern industrial age, the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately, it is the romantic story which most viewers will remember, and the one that is most celebrated. I say unfortunately because there are valuable historic and moral lessons to be learned from the retelling of this tragedy if one will take the time to sift through all of the romantic drivel which threatens to suffocate it.
There is the danger of going to see Titanic and forgetting that it is a story that has been retold for most of this century without much of the romanticism that Cameron and Hollywood include in their latest retelling. The real story of the Titanic is not about the celebration of heroic individualism and personal autonomy. It is about a single machine which has become a symbol in the twentieth century for man’s technological brilliance, resourceful imagination, and inability to completely master his universe. The monuments and personal testimonies include acts of cowardice and bravery, accounts of class conflict, and excessive celebrations of wealth that would make most people blush.
Rushing to hasty judgment about James Cameron’s account of the Titanic is neither wise nor expedient. I believe that too often our tendency is to reject films, literature, and the arts in general because there are a few things we find objectionable. Francis Schaeffer always cautioned us against hasty judgment when evaluating the arts.(1) Schaeffer believed that the work of understanding a particular piece of art and the artist should always precede an evaluation. For many viewers, the romantic overshadowing of the historic event may prove to be overwhelming and, ultimately, the film will have to be rejected. Likewise, the careful viewer may find that the historic story and its moral lessons are preserved, managing to shine through the Hollywood commercialism and romantic sentimentality.
Titanic: Romance Hollywood Style
Having introduced the dual nature of Titanic, a fictionalized romance and a factually inspired historic costume drama, I will now examine each aspect separately. By inserting the romantic plot into Titanic, Cameron presumes that a modern audience will not be interested in a historic costume drama, even one about the Titanic, without some form of entertainment to elevate the boredom of mere history. As his vehicle, Cameron chooses the love story between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young bachelor in third class and Rose De Witt Bukatar (Kate Winslet), a young socialite who is engaged to be married.
Jack wins his ticket on the Titanic in a last minute poker game and jumps from the gang plank just as the fated ship is pulling out of the harbor. He is the embodiment of the classic male adventurer. Jack has no ties to friends, family, or country. His days are occupied with whatever adventure he chooses and he answers to no man. By contrast, Rose is a beautiful young woman who is accustomed to the finer things in life, a member of the upper class and a lady in every sense of the word. Her family has come to financial ruin, and the only means of rescuing their fortune is for her to marry back into wealth. Rose, distraught with her arranged marriage, is contemplating suicide by jumping overboard when Jack comes to her rescue.
Jack is an amateur artist specializing in portraiture and the human figure. Rose is impressed with Jack’s talent and proposes that he paint her in the nude. Jack naturally complies with Rose’s request and we see Kate Winslet in the film’s only nude scenes. Jack and Rose fall in love, consummate their love out of wedlock, and Rose begins to scheme for a way out of her marital commitment. When the ship begins to sink, it is Jack who leads Rose through the maze of hazards, assists her after the ship sinks, and is finally responsible for her survival. Their love is portrayed as triumphing over natural disasters and societal constraints. They will not be denied by man or God.
We should not vicariously live sinful adventures through the lives of others, whether in film or literature.(2) When we applaud the sinful behavior of others, we participate in their sin and are thus guilty. Likewise, to remain silent is a sin.(3) Too often a film like Titanic inspires young people, Christian and non-Christian alike, to applaud sinful behavior. Young people frequently see romantic adventure and thrilling lifestyles in characters like Jack and Rose. What they often fail to realize is the sinful nature of the romance in the film and the direct contradiction of biblical principles. If young people are going to continue to watch films with mixed messages like those of Titanic, it is imperative that we discuss the philosophical and doctrinal content in an intelligent and reflective manner.
Men and women are born with a fallen nature and we should expect to see this nature in fictional literature and film. What we should not do is celebrate this fallen nature and revel in wickedness. And too many people, especially young people, applaud Titanic on the basis of the romantic triumphs of Jack and Rose.
Humanistic Confidence and Technological Arrogance in Titanic
Having discussed the romantic aspect of Titanic, discussion of the historic nature of the film is at hand. In order to accomplish this more fully, one must begin with an understanding of the thinking prevalent when the Titanic was built and the place that its demise has held throughout the twentieth century.
Understanding the historical milieu of the beginning of this century is a prerequisite for grasping what the Titanic meant to those who lived at that time. Following the rebirth of classical studies in the Renaissance, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were characterized by a vigorous application of the scientific method to almost all aspects of life. The Enlightenment period was a time marked by some of the greatest discoveries of mankind, discoveries which have so impacted our lives that we cannot imagine our modern society without them.
The first and second Industrial Revolutions followed the Enlightenment period, and the modern world as we know it came into being. The confidence from the Enlightenment period, coupled with the obvious engineering and technical successes in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, fostered a confidence in man’s ability to master his universe that was unrivaled in any preceding period.
The Titanic, built during the early and formative years of this century, was truly a modern project in that it was built out of the confidence acquired by the western world during the previous two centuries of progress. Designed by Thomas Andrews, and built by The White Star Line in England, the Titanic was completed in 1912 and weighed over 45,000 tons. It was the largest moving man-made object of its day, and eyewitness accounts of it were often marked by a daunting reverence for her sheer size and presence.
The Titanic was the pride of the White Star Line and became, for many, a symbol for man’s ability to accomplish anything he endeavored. The designers, captain, and engineers claimed that she was the fastest and safest luxury liner on the ocean. We even hear the infamous boast that “God couldn’t sink her.” Rather than objecting to this type of statement, or assuming a posture of righteous indignation, Christians should understand that lines such as these accurately reflect the true spirit of the time. The Titanic may be understood as an overwhelming example of sinful pride on the part of many individuals in that era. She was able to inspire in many, from designers and builders to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who participated in her glory, a false estimation of man’s control of the universe.
In 1985, 73 years after the Titanic sank, Eva Hart, the last living survivor who was old enough at the time to remember the actual events surrounding the fateful night, had many interesting things to say about the disaster. She said that the entire catastrophe could simply be attributed to man’s arrogance and desire to demonstrate mastery over his universe. We now know that the Titanic was traveling too fast to react quickly to the report of icebergs ahead. Coupled with an arrogant over-confidence, this caused a disaster that need never have happened. James Cameron’s Titanic provides a new opportunity to reconsider some of the lessons that many hold to be fundamental aspects of this tragic event.
Class Conflict, Religion and Heroism in Titanic
I have discussed the technological arrogance which is usually cited in reference to the Titanic disaster and has been part of the story for most of this century. I now want to examine some additional aspects of the film which are valuable as moral lessons and interesting from historical perspectives.
First, and something that has caught many by surprise, is the glaring presence of class conflict in the movie. Men and women from every class of society and many ethnic origins were on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. The early part of this century was characterized by an extreme class consciousness. People were extremely conscious about their social and financial status, and upward mobility was very rare. In the film, as in real life at the time, the poor and the rich have little association with one another. On the occasions when their lives intersect, it is the rich who have all of the benefits and the poor who endure most of the pain and suffering. In Titanic we have an opportunity to see this class division from a unique perspective. We can find rich and poor characters with whom we genuinely sympathize, as well as those whom we despise. For the most part though, James Cameron portrays the rich as oppressive, rude, and arrogant. This may or may not be a true perspective of that time, but it does capture the distinction. In the film we are given the opportunity to attend one party for first class passengers and a separate celebration for third class passengers. The third class folks look like they are having every bit as much fun as the first class passengers, and possibly more.
The heroic aspect of the Titanic legend remains intact in Cameron’s film. All of the historical facts are not perfect and there have been outcries from some about the portrayal of specific individuals in the film in a manner that is unflattering and factually false. However, the film is true to the account that many people went down honorably and courageously with the ship. Many of the crew remained at their stations throughout the sinking. We witness Captain Edward John Smith’s (Bernard Hill) disbelief at the sinking of the great ship, as well as his willingness to go down with her. The musicians who played while the ship was sinking in order to provide a calming background are portrayed as noble and of unflinching courage. There are scenes in which men of all classes step aside so that women and children from all classes can get to the life boats. There was not perfect equality, calm, or heroism. However, there were enough heroic and noble acts performed that night to merit respect for those individuals.
I also found the treatment of Christians to be fair and realistic in the brief scene dealing with the religious life of the passengers. Groups are seen in prayer as the ship sinks. Eva Hart also testified that the last song the band played as the Titanic went down was Nearer My God To Thee.(4)
The Problem of Pain and the Sovereignty of God
To conclude this appraisal of Titanic, I will discuss the theological questions that are raised and offer some insights for discussion. Regardless of one’s position on the film, the factual account of 1500 persons losing their lives in a disaster that did not have to happen raises some serious issues. Many Christians believe that God is in control and that, had He wished to do so, He could have intervened in the Titanic disaster. In this instance God did not intervene, and many innocent people perished, including women, children, and infants.
C. S. Lewis summarizes the problem of pain and suffering in this way. “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”(5)
The first part of this problem, which pertains to God’s goodness, presupposes that the sinking of the Titanic was not good, and that God allowed an evil thing to take place. One response might be that He allowed this to take place to avoid a larger disaster, such as a collision involving two ocean liners. Or perhaps there was a plague or virus on the ship which would have stricken a large portion of the American population, and God prevented the Titanic from reaching its destination in order to save millions. While this is pure speculation, it does illustrate that we, being finite, do not have the same perspective as God in determining what is good or evil.
The second part of this problem questions God’s ability to intervene in human affairs. Here the argument would be that God saw the Titanic in danger, but was powerless to stop the disaster. Any Christian who believes the Scriptures knows that God has miraculously intervened in human affairs in the past, and could do so again at any time. The fact that He apparently did not act may be accounted for by supposing that God saw a greater good in allowing the Titanic to sink. Furthermore, He may have been instrumental in her sinking just as He was instrumental in stopping the Tower of Babel from being built.(6) Again, the point here is not to argue this position specifically, but to show that we do not completely understand how God works in every situation. In Isaiah 55:8-9 the prophet declares that God’s thoughts and ways are not man’s. His understanding is higher than ours. We should expect His actions to be higher also.
The presence of natural, moral, and gratuitous evil in the world is one of the greatest challenges to the consistency of Christian truth claims. Titanic is a wonderful opportunity for believers and non-believers to engage one another. When we remember that over 1500 people perished in the 1912 Titanic disaster and thousands of friends and family members were also dramatically affected, the problem of pain and suffering should not be neglected. Very few, if any, of the passengers on board the Titanic that night thought it would be their last night on earth. Yet for many, it was just that. Though we can use film as an easy escape and a vehicle for vicarious living, we should both realize and maximize the potential for dialogue and the opportunity for contact with our culture afforded through a film like Titanic.
For Further Reading
James Cameron’s Titanic, Forward by James Cameron, Text by Ed. W. Marsh, Photographs by Douglas Kirkland, Harper Perennial: NY, NY 1997.
Sinking of the Titanic: Eyewitness Accounts, Ed. Jay Henry Mowbray, Dover Publications Inc. Mineola NY. 1998.
The Titanic: End of a Dream, Wyn Craig Wade, Penguin: NY, NY. 1987.
Titanic, An Illustrated History. Text by Don Lynch, Paintings by Ken Marschall, Intro. by Robert D. Ballard. Madison Press Books, Ontario, Canada. 1992.
Titanic: The Official Story April 14-15 1912. Facsimile Reproductions Of Documents From The Public Record Of The Office Of London, Random House Inc. NY, NY. 1997.
Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy, Eaton, John P. & Charles A. Hass. 2nd ed. Norton, W.W. NY, NY 1994
1 Francis A. Schaeffer, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Vol. I, A Christian View of Philosophy and Culture, (Crossway Books: Westchester), 30-31.
2 For a more detailed account of how Christians should approach the arts see: Ryken, Leland. The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts. Harold Shaw: Wheaton, 1989. and Ryken, Leland. Culture in Christian perspective: A Door to Understanding and Enjoying the Arts. Multnomah Press: Portland, 1986.
3 I Jn. 5:17
4 The Titanic. Public Broadcasting System. Aired on channel 13, Dallas, TX, May 4, 1998, 9:00 PM.
5 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (The Macmillian Company: New York, 1944), 14.
6 Gen. 11
©1998 Probe Ministries.