Most people are familiar with the disaster of the RMS Titanic through James Cameron's Titanic, a monstrously successful 1997 film that grossed billions and launched the careers of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, but the tragedy does not begin and end with James Cameron. Due to the natural high drama of the subject, there were many Titanic films before 1997, and many movies made after that feature similar tropes, including a romance between the upper and lower classes, a dour and dutiful captain, and the band playing a final song on the deck of the sinking ship.
However, there are other movies about the Titanic that made some very strange choices, including a film starring an actual Titanic survivor, and some outrageously bizarre animated Italian fairy tales set in and around the disaster.
What is it that makes the story of the Titanic so enduring? Perhaps it's the drama that Cameron saw in it. Perhaps it's the spectacle and action of some of the recent adaptations. Or perhaps it's a combination of these and dozens of other elements that have fixed the Titanic in our collective consciousness. Whatever makes it so appealing, the story of the Titanic has lost none of its allure for the film industry.
Movies based on the Titanic are not known for their accuracy. The exception, however, is A Night to Remember, a 1959 film based on the best-selling book about the story of Charles Lightoller, the ship’s second officer, as he tries to save as many peoples he can.
The filmmakers were meticulous about authenticity. They consulted with the few remaining survivors and based the sets on blueprints from the original ship. The film is also notable for featuring Sean Connery in a small, early role as a sailor.
Even before the phenomenal success of Titanic, James Cameron’s obsession with underwater exploration was well known. Cameron even claims the movie was just a side effect of his desire to explore the famous wreck:
I was trying to figure out a way to dive the Titanic wreck and the only tools at my disposal were that I could tell a major studio that I would make a movie about it if they would fund the expedition.
But once was not enough for Cameron and his crew. In 2003, they returned to the Titanic to make the feature documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, which follows Cameron and Titanic actor Bill Paxton as they explore the wreck, from their first dives to in-depth looks at the staterooms and hallways of the Titanic. The documentary did well on its release, proving that public interest in the wreck is not limited to star-crossed lovers and tragic sacrifices.
There are certain cliches that attach themselves to any film about the Titanic: the band playing as the ship sinks, the star-crossed romance, the elite of the upper decks, and the ominous warnings delivered by a harried first mate. While most of these are associated with Cameron’s Titanic, they existed long before.
Several of these tropes came into being when the first “talkie” about the Titanic was produced. Released in 1929, Atlantic was based on a successful play by Ernest Raymond, The Berg, which was more concerned with the delicate arguments of its characters and clashing world views than the looming threat of the iceberg. When British International Pictures purchased the rights and began adapting it, it was clear that it was meant to be a spectacle about the RMS Titanic.
Atlantic introduced a whole raft of details drawn from the disaster and set the tone for how stories about the Titanic are presented. It was the first time a character made ironic comments about the fine weather as the ship embarks, and the first time unlucky passengers were shown stuck on the ship's lower deck because of locked doors. The film invented many of the tropes seen in every other movie based on the Titanic.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is an American musical about the life of real-life survivor Margaret Brown, a socialite who survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This fictionalized account of Brown’s life stars Debbie Reynolds in an Oscar-nominated role as the title character.
Following Molly Brown from her attempts to climb the social ladder in Europe and America to her fateful voyage aboard the Titanic, the movie culminates in a sinking scene that is played almost as a triumph for Molly Brown, as she rescues survivors and rises to the occasion.