Movies That Everyone Should See: “Titanic”

Titanic Disaster.

Sunk After Collision With an Iceberg.

Loss of Life.

Wireless Calls for Aid.


The White Star Liner Titanic (46,382 tons) which left Southhampton on Wednesday on her maiden voyage to New York, came into collision with an iceberg at a point about 41.45 North and 30.14 West off the North American coast at 10.23 p.m. on Sunday night (American time). The vessel was badly damaged and wireless messages were sent out for help. A number of other liners in the neighborhood hastened to her assistance, she sank yesterday morning as will be seen from the following message received as we are going to press:-

NEW YORK, April 15, 9.45 p.m.

The following despatch has been received here from Cape Race:-

“The steamer Olympic reports that the steamer Carpathia reached the Titanic’s position at daybreak, but found boats and wreckage only. She reported that the Titanic foundered. About 2.20 a.m. in lat. 41 deg__16 min., long. 30 deg, 14 min.”

The message adds:-“All the Titanic’s boats are accounted for. About 673 souls have been saved of the crew and passengers. The latter are nearly all women and children. The Leyland liner California is remaining and searching the vicinity of the disaster. The Carpathia is returning to New York with the survivors!” Reuter.

“The Times”
London, England
April 16, 1912

The RMS Titanic set sail on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England on April 10th, 1912.

The ship was constructed by the White Star Lines in order to provide weekly voyages across the Atlantic between England and America. Along with her sister ship The Olympic, and the smaller Oceanic, the three would run continuous routes back and forth, offering passengers going in either direction a weekly opportunity to set sail across the ocean. “Titanic” was the largest ship at sea at that time, and along with her “sister ships”, one of the largest vessels ever constructed. The Titanic was 882 feet 9 inches (269.06 m) long, 92 feet 6 inches (28.19 m) wide and 104 feet tall. The rudder alone weighed 100 tons.

It was considered unsinkable.

At 11:40 pm, April 14th 1912, the starboard side of the ship struck the iceberg, rupturing its hull below the waterline. Five of the ship’s eleven watertight compartments were breached, and the massive ocean-liner began taking on water. Titanic began to sink. There weren’t enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board, and the boats that were available were most accessible to the first class passengers. In slightly over two and a half hours, the ship, and those remaining on board, had gone under.

Approximately 1,300 people had set sail. The ship was crewed by 885.

Only 710 people survived.

1,502 people died.


The ill-fated vessel lay undiscovered at the bottom of the ocean for 70 years. On September 1st, 1985, scientists from Woods Hole Deep Submergence Lab, Massachusetts, and the French Institute Francais de Recherche pour l’Exploitation des Mers (I.F.R.E.M.E.R.), discovered the wreck by scanning the ocean floor utilizing a remotely controlled, submersible “sled” equipped with video cameras.

Director James Cameron had always been a deep-sea buff. Shipwrecks held a strange fascination for him, and he had always considered the wreck of the Titanic to be the “Mt. Everest”. He openly admits now that his desire to make the movie was actually rooted in his desire to dive to the recently discovered wreck.

His films preceding “Titanic” were both big budget action films that were enormously successful at the box office. “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” was the most expensive movie ever made at that time ($102 million), but became the top grossing movie of 1991 with a worldwide take of $519,843,345. “True Lies”, another Schwarzenegger vehicle, cost $115 million, but similarly did enormous business at the box office, with a worldwide cume of $378,882,411. Fox pictures signed him to a five-year deal.

So when Cameron pitched “Romeo and Juliet” on the Titanic, they listened. He envisioned a “A Night to Remember” (1958) with state of the art special effects, and narrative bookends of the modern-day discovery of the wreckage. They agreed to go ahead with the project… with an initial estimated budget of around $135 million dollars; then the market standard for a big budget movie (thanks in no small part to Cameron himself).

Cameron, however, was intent on making the film with an unprecedented level of historical accuracy and authenticity.

He convinced Fox that – as opposed to model work – actually shooting footage of the Titanic wreck would be a marketable asset for the film. They could promote the film based on the fact that they went to the lengths of actually diving to the wreckage. Fox agreed, and Cameron set up the expeditions. The crew made twelve dives to obtain footage in 1995. Cameron got his wish and did, in fact dive to the wreck himself.  

But he had hardly begun to demonstrate the lengths he was willing to go to for realism in the film.


In order to create the set of the ship, 20th Century Fox purchased 40 acres of oceanfront property south of Playas de Rosarito, Mexico. They began construction of a specialized studio, featuring a 17,000,000 gallon water tank with the ocean in view behind it, in order to build their full-scale (one-sided) replica Titanic. They constructed the ship with a lifting platform built within, in order to tilt the set during the sinking scenes. For the interior shots during the sinking sequences, an additional, enclosed, 5,000,000 gallon tank was built, so that those sets could be tilted into water.

The “miniature” of the Titanic was 45 feet (14 m) long.

Cameron put two Titanic historians on payroll in order to authenticate the historical detail in the film. He also spent six months researching the passengers who were lost in the tragedy and accounts of those who had survived. He then blended the historical personages (such as Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown and Victor Garber’s Thomas Andrews) into the story amongst the fictional characters.

The interior sets were reproduced as exactly as possible, utilizing photographs and the actual plans from the archives of the company that built the RMS Titanic in the early 1900s. The blueprints, which had been thought to have been lost, were found in their archives. The crew was able to reproduce the designs of the rooms, down to the furniture, carpeting, and decorations. Prop cutlery and crockery was created with the White Star Line crest on each piece.

Production standards on the film got out of hand, however.

At one point, they dumped 120 tons of water through a hallway to achieve a shot. The movie contains over 100 speaking parts and required more than 1,000 extras. And every part needed to be dressed in period costumes. In addition to the enormous, custom-made, water tank enclosed, tilting, historically accurate sets, Cameron was utilizing state of the art CGI and digital compositing in post production. 

All of this heightened attention to detail led to the film falling far behind schedule, and way over budget. Initially scheduled for 138 days, shooting ran 160 days… more than a month longer than anticipated. The film was initially slated for a summer release. Blockbuster season. But due to delays in post-production it needed to be moved from July to December. The $135 million budget was eclipsed, with the final cost running over $200 million. The first time in history a movie had cost so much to make. Fox had to bring in Paramount to co-finance an additional $65 million in exchange for U.S. distribution rights

This did not go unnoticed by the press. The trades took to kicking “Titanic” around like a football. Variety ran a “Titanic Watch” on a daily basis. Parallels between the historic sinking and the potential financial disaster looming for the studios involved were inevitable. It didn’t help matters that “Waterworld” was fresh on everyone’s mind. That film, released a mere year and a half earlier (1995), was a historic financial disaster. The fact that its production also revolved around ocean shoots led that budget to approach $200 million ($175). Comparisons, and predictions of “Titanic”s impending doom, abounded. Such forecasts of box office failure are certainly not always accurate, but they can cause pre-release negativity that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

James Cameron was openly being derided for his hubris. The epic budget and production delays were cited as evidence of an oversized ego run amok. Rumors from the set of his ill temper and perfectionist demands added to the fire. In addition to helming a project that was far behind schedule and outrageously over budget, he was developing a reputation as an unpleasant, angry taskmaster.

The truth was, he was well aware of the risks he was taking with his career, and could feel the pressure mounting. During editing he taped a razor blade to his monitor with a note, “Use in case film sucks”. He realized that “Titanic” could very well be last movie he would ever make. Careers do not recover from flops of those proportions.

Cameron is an incredibly skilled populist, however. And here, he put together an ingenious recipe designed for mass appeal.

At the heart of the story is a romance between star-crossed lovers; a time-honored storytelling element if ever there was one. The romance is wrapped in the trappings of class warfare, the lack of women’s rights, and the burden of societal obligations. Rose is feeling claustrophobic under the pressures of her impending loveless marriage. While the two doomed lovers get together, the overwhelming opulence of the Titanic illustrates the vast economic disparity inherent in the world and Rose’s struggle with her fiance creates a feminist struggle for independence.

The attention to historical accuracy is inescapable. The vast investment that Fox made comes through onscreen in the form of detailed sets, lavish costumes, and incredible special effects.

Hanging over everything is the foreknowledge of impending doom. The audience, well aware that the ship sinks, but most likely unaware of the specific timing, is constantly expecting the disaster at any moment.

And when it comes… when the ship finally strikes ice, an unparalleled action sequence unfolds. Backed by the horror that these events actually happened, the incredibly realistic sinking sequence ensues without downplaying or softening the tragedy. For a period romance, the disaster portion of the film has more than its share of gruesome moments. People commit suicide, others are shot to death, people die as the boat breaks apart, or fall to their deaths from great heights as it sinks. And of course, hundreds upon hundreds drown or freeze to death in the waters of the ocean. It’s a brutal, unflinching rendition of events.

He had also chosen extremely wisely with his two leads. Credentialed, but nowhere near the superstars they are today, DiCaprio and Winslet were the perfect choice for the two leads. They’ve gone on, since, to create incredible careers for themselves.

Winslet had already been Oscar nominated once prior to this, (Best Supporting Actress, “Sense and Sensibility”, 1995), would be nominated here, and would earn four more nominations (to date) subsequently (“Iris”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Little Children”, and “The Reader”). She would win Best Actress in 2009 for “The Reader”.

DiCaprio was also already an Academy Award nominee at the time of filming (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), and has earned two nominations post-“Titanic” to date (“The Aviator” and “Blood Diamond”). He has yet to win an Oscar, but with the calibre of film he associates himself with, he’ll have many more opportunities to come.

The movie also features one of the most popular scores of all time. James Horner’s score and Celine Dion’s song “My Heart Will Go On” combined to propel sales of the “Titanic” soundtrack to 30 million copies. “My Heart Will Go On” was number one for 10 weeks, and sold 15 million copies as a single, as well.

“Titanic” experienced box office success like no film ever before, and only one film since.

It opened at number one on December 19th, 1997, to the tune of $28,638,131 for its debut weekend. It would go on to enjoy a nearly ten month-long North American theatrical run. In six out of the first ten weeks of its release, “Titanic”‘s week over week change rose from the preceding frame. “Titanic” held the top spot at the North American box office for a record 15 consecutive weeks, a record that stands to this day.  That’s just shy of four full months. It opened mid-December, 1997, and was the number one movie on the charts until the first week of April, the following year.

It finally bowed with $600,788,188 domestically and $1,242,413,080 internationally, for a total take of $1,843,201,268 worldwide. Titanic became the first movie ever to gross more than $1 billion worldwide on March 1st, 1998. Its rerelease in 3D earlier this year helped it become only the second movie ever to gross $2 billion.

It ended its theatrical run as the highest grossing movie of all time, and held the title for over ten years, until “Avatar” (another James Cameron film) eclipsed it in 2010.


“Titanic” dominated the 1998 Academy Awards. It received a record fourteen nominations, and won eleven: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Score, Best Editing, Best Original Song, and Best Art Direction. The awards it received nominations for but did not win were Best Actress (Kate Winslet), Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Stuart), and Best Makeup.

James Cameron would infamously quote the movie during his acceptance speech, saying, “I’m the king of the world!” While that did nothing to temper his reputation, it did provide him a signature moment for his illustrious career.

When AFI first released its “100 Years… 100 Movies” listing in 1998, the newly released “Titanic” was not selected. Ten years later however, on the tenth anniversary edition, it made the cut at #83.

The film experienced a great deal of backlash in the wake of its overwhelming success. In certain respects, deservedly so. It definitely is emotionally manipulative at times, there are some questionable character decisions, and Cameron’s characters can be thin, for sure. But the film remains as a shining example of historical docu-drama, and a brilliant piece of Hollywood filmmaking. It was a legendary gamble in order to make an expansive film in the grand tradition of Hollywood epic romances. It’s become a widely beloved and world-famous movie that has carved a permanent spot for itself in pop culture.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

57 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Titanic”

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