Top Five Films About the Titanic

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On this day in 1912, the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg. Over 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers were lost. Within one month of the disaster, dramatized films were being made, along with plays and poems. But as time passed, the tragedy of the Titanic became less of a spectacle and more of a setting for historical costume drama. Some movies and TV productions have been more accurate to what happened (and to the period) than others.

Let’s take a look at five Titanic films and TV shows, ranked from amusingly fictional to wonderfully historical…

 

 

5) Titanic (1953)

Titanic (1953)

Webb and Stanwyck as an married couple sorting out their troubles before the real tragedy strikes.

The big original big Hollywood treatment of the disaster, this movie features a ton of famous stars, such as Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Wagner, in a fictional, romanticized story. Sound familiar? Yep, this was James Cameron’s template for the ’97 version. Less historically accurate in every way (check that 1950s hair!), but at least there’s no Celine Dion theme song.

Titanic (1953)

1910s or 1950s, you be the judge.

 

4) 1910s Plot Device

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)

Lady Bellamy, center, wearing the hat, will go down with the ship.

OK, this isn’t just one movie or TV series, but it’s entertaining how several, strikingly similar fictional series have used the sinking of the Titanic as a plot point. In season three of Upstairs, Downstairs (1973), the grand lady of the house, Lady Marjorie Bellamy, dies in the Titanic’s sinking, closing up several storylines and changing the tone of the show. Then, decades later, Downton Abbey (2010) opens with the heir to the Abbey lost on the Titanic, and this sets into motion the arrival of distant cousin Matthew Crawley, heir presumptive and new love interest for Lady Mary Crawley. These both show how the sudden death of so many prominent people in the Titanic tragedy must have changed the lives of many families.

Downton Abbey (2010)

This wedding would not have happened without the Titanic.

 

3) Titanic (1997)

Titanic (1997)

Bad boy makes good. Totally believable (not).

Obligatory Titanic film is obligatory. The costumes are lovely, and the recreations of the Titanic’s interior and even the sinking are quite accurate. But the fictional story is chock-a-block with romantic cliches, forcing your heart to go on. Watch it with the sound off.

Titanic (1997)

Never let go, sweetie.

 

2) Titanic (2012)

Titanic (2012)

That’s Perdita Weeks, who’s been in Lost in Austen, The Tudors, and Great Expectations.

This recent production is an exhaustive, multi-focused telling of the story in docu-drama format. Bonus points for some very good costuming and lots of British actors who’ve also been in things like Howards End, Gosford Park, and Wings of the Dove. The first three episodes focus on fictional, but realistic, passengers that contrast a pair of upper-class families, one English and one American, with several third-class passengers, families from Ireland and Italy. The ship’s crew is introduced along the way, and the final episode tells of the ship’s sinking. While this ITV miniseries didn’t have the big budget of James Cameron’s movie, it was a deeper and more historically faithful exploration of the differences and potential, if minimal, interactions between classes on the great ship.

Titanic (2012)

First-class passengers wearing hats during their escape.

 

1) A Night to Remember (1958)

A Night to Remember (1958)

One of the few inaccuracies in this movie — the White Star Line didn’t christen its ships.

The earliest attempt to be historically accurate, and easily the best. If you watch nothing else about the RMS Titanic on screen, watch this one. It’s as thorough as a documentary, but as gripping as a fine costume drama. The film was overshadowed in America by the 1953 flick (although the Brits praised this one, being a UK production), yet it’s slowly gained recognition over the years. The story is not romanticized, there are no big fictional characters added, but if you’re not in tears by the end, you’re made of stone. The only major historically inaccuracies are precisely how the ship sank, much of which wasn’t known until the wreckage wasn’t discovered. The pathos and tension come from the actual events — a fine example of real history being far more exciting than anything made up.

A Night to Remember (1958)

Before the Titanic wreckage was discovered, the eyewitness stories lacked enough detail to say how the ship broke up on sinking.

 

 

What’s your opinion about the Titanic on screen?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

15 Responses

  1. Shirley

    Have you ever watched the 1943 Nazi propaganda Titanic movie? I don’t remember the costumes at all because I was so distracted by the plot, which is absolutely bonkers. But I recommend watching it at least once, though. It’s . . . different.

    Reply
  2. MoHub

    Hooray for A Night to Remember! Best Titanic film ever made. many survivors were unable to watch it because it was so close to what they’d experienced.

    Besides—Kenneth More and David McCallum.

    Reply
  3. Emily Barry

    I’m blanking on the name here… But the earliest film about the disaster was actually made in 1912, and starred a woman who was an actual survivor of the sinking! Her fiance was either the producer or the director, if I recall, and the actress kept having flashbacks and panic attacks throughout the filming. Her fiance was a JERK for putting her through that, in my opinion!
    I haven’t seen the film, and it might be lost, but I have to admit it would be fascinating.

    Reply
    • hsc

      That would’ve been “Saved from the Titanic” (Eclair, 1912), starring Dorothy Gibson:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saved_from_the_Titanic

      Jules Brulatour had already sent a film crew out to film the Carpathia arriving for the rescue, and had exclusive footage that was put in theaters about a week after the accident, to huge success.

      He decided to take it further, and Gibson agreed to recreate her experience in a quickly-made dramatization that hit theaters 29 days after the sinking itself. Of course, films were much shorter then, and “Saved from the Titanic” was only 10 minutes long.

      It apparently became a lost film only a couple of years after it was made, with all known prints destroyed in a 1914 studio fire; only a handful of stills exist.

      However, since Gibson wore the actual clothes she wore that night, one still preserves what has to be THE most accurate costume in a movie about the Titanic:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dorothy_Gibson_-_Titanic.jpg

      Gibson apparently was traumatized by the experience, and never acted in another movie.

      There was a German film that same year, “In Nacht und Eis,” which still survives:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Nacht_und_Eis

      Reply
  4. Terry Towels

    Titanic (1996) is a cheesy US made-for-tv production with Tim Curry as a mean rapist(?!). Marilu Henner as Molly Brown! It’s a d-list good time.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Wasn’t there also a made-for-teevee Titanic with Cloris Leachman as Molly Brown and David Janssen as Astor? I seem to have a vague recollection of that.

      Reply
  5. Charity

    I agree with AN2R as #1… but gosh, I thought Julian Fellowes’ miniseries was AWFUL.

    I do, however, watch Cameron’s epic every year on the anniversary. My gosh, it’s GORGEOUS. And I may or may not cry at the end. ;)

    Reply
  6. MoHub

    If you’re going to mention the Titanic as a plot device, you can’t ignore The Unsinkable Molly Brown, since her experience as a survivor is what got her the nickname. Besides, the costumes are laughable and need you to “discuss” them.

    Reply
  7. Sonya Heaney

    Aw, come on! Cheesy as it is, I was in high school when the ’97 version came out – it was my generation’s Twilight.

    At least it didn’t have sparkly vampire stalkers. And that “I’m going to kill myself by jumping off the ship” dress makes me swoon every time.

    Reply
  8. ladylavinia1932

    The only major historically inaccuracies are precisely how the ship sank, much of which wasn’t known until the wreckage wasn’t discovered.

    If you’re speaking of the 1958 film, you should also add the newsreel clip that looked as if it had been shot in the 1930s or 40s, along with the final tune that the ship’s band was playing.

    Reply
  9. Andrew

    For many that experienced the arrival of the news first hand, the sinking of the Titanic was the equivalent to 9/11 in immediacy, shock, and horror. I remember my grandmother, (who was a parlour maid at Dublin Castle at the time), telling me that all the staff were woken in the middle of the night, assembled in one of the halls, and told the news. She also said that they all broke out in singing ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ (That generation’s ‘Amazing Grace’ I suppose) She had also known a couple of ladies maids who were on board.

    As far as the movie convention goes of using the sinking death of a critical character as a major plot pivot, this really happened in real life. The case I am most familiar with is that of Charles Melville Hays, the president of the Grand Trunk Railway in Canada. His death led to the collapse of the railroad and its plans to turn Prince Rupert, BC into a major trans-shipment port. Disasters can be useful literary devices but a certain amount of time is I think necessary.

    Reply
  10. DRush76

    There were other inaccuracies in 1958’s “A Night to Remember”. The movie featured the band playing the wrong tune as its last song. And the beginning of the film featured a newsreeel about the christening of the Titanic. Actually, I don’t think it was the Titanic, for I saw a woman wearing an outfit straight from the 1930s. So, the movie was showing the wrong newsreel.

    Reply

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