Only ‘better folks’ got clear

Class truths

Dave Douglass reviews James Cameron's ‘Titanic’ (1997, general release)

When my mother was two years old, my granddad, it seems, was ticketed to travel to America on the Titanic on the prom­ise of well paid work. He had got to the actual dockside when unfortu­nately - or so he thought at the time - my granny was taken seriously ill and he had to abandon the voyage. Maybe for that, or for the large part that ships and shipbuilding played in Tyneside communities, the story of the Titanic is one which seems to have loomed large in my imagination since I was a tot.

Of course in those days we were fed images of the mighty vessel go­ing down in one piece. Illustrated sto­ries showed her lying on the bottom virtually intact, and we were excited by the concept of raising her, pristine and white - if minus a funnel or two. This was a common delusion we had all been led to by the way the story had been relayed to us. Anyone who has seen the earlier, though mucho cheapo Raise the Titanic will recall when it broke the surface it was a little wet, but otherwise unscathed.

As a young communist, I recall one of my comrades enthusing that the engineering capabilities of a commu­nist age will allow us to raise the Titanic with ease and (with suitable al­terations, so we couldn’t be accused of seeking euthanasia) send her on a world cruise full of retired workers and their families. For l00 different rea­sons and for 80 years plus, the drama of that evening, that Night to remem­ber, as the first film on the subject was called, has gripped generations.

This current version, the most ex­pensive film ever made, does not sell the story short. Although centred around a fictitious ‘upstairs, down­stairs’ scenario of young, inter-class love, the real events of the tragedy feature too. Certainly the class nature of society is reflected on the vessel. One could clearly feel the resentment in the cinema audience for the haughty and arrogant bourgeois, and the twice I have seen it a loud cheer went up when the spoilt little rich girl­-turned-lover of a prole spits in the face of her rich fiancé.

One of the highlights is the ex­change of working class cultures be­low decks, as the poor of Europe - Slavs, Italians, Irish and Scots - make their own entertainment, jamming the rhythms and instruments, and either adapting their own dances to the wild Latin/Slavic/Celtic music, or joining together for the polka, which was the rage still in working class Europe.

The optimism of the poor and dis­possessed, full of hope for their new futures in the rich pastures of America, is later to reinforce the utter despera­tion of these same people - men, women and children - caged below deck at gunpoint, while the rich and powerful women and children (and not a few men) escape on the few lifeboats the company had decided to install. Not a dry eye in the house. And more so when we remember this is not some tale, but a true event, in which 1,500 people - mainly working class - died, helpless and desperate, because of the greed, arrogance and stupidity of ‘better folks’.

The film does not touch on the con­troversies which surround the event at all. Why top speed through the shortest, though most ice-studded route? Was it simply to arrive ahead of schedule, as is implied? Others have speculated that an untamed fire in the coal hold, out of control since before the ship left port, was the reason. At­tempting to shovel it into the boilers and/or get to America without an em­barrassing cancellation on the maiden voyage.

What of the missing ship? The boat so near, it was said, that Titanic’s si­rens would shatter her portholes, but yet did not respond to rescue re­quests. The hapless captain of a pre­vious vessel, damned as the sole person to blame in the whole tragedy at the official inquiry, was recently ac­quitted of any such culpability. Yet another vessel had been there. The director leaves such things aside and ploughs on with the main story, prob­ably without much loss.

The film starts at the end, with sub­marines searching for the stricken wreck. I did not like that. I like my stories like bedtime tales - to start at the beginning and work through to the end. But despite my fears that it would spoil the story (it wasn’t as though we didn’t know how it ended), the method worked and we were soon transported back to the period as invisible witnesses from afar.

This is a great film. One wonders though, given the costs and the final lack of controversy, how many heads rolled and yards of cellulose were ed­ited before it hit the screen. I doubt that this end result had a soft feeling.

Dave Douglass