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)
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.
4) 1910s Plot Device
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.
3) Titanic (1997)
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.
2) Titanic (2012)
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.
1) A Night to Remember (1958)
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.
What’s your opinion about the Titanic on screen?