April 15, 2012

100 years of symbolism

On this day 100 years ago, the RMS Titanic, metaphor for man's arrogance in flaunting their technology in the face of Mother Nature, struck a piece of that aforesaid matron and sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,500 people to a watery, symbolic end.

At least, according to Our Dumb Century, that's what The Onion's front page read on April 16, 1912. I laughed so hard I decided to appropriate it for myself when the time came.

I don't suffer from Titanimania the way many seem to. Heck, I assume all the teenage girls swooning over Leonardo di Caprio have grown up a little in the 14 years and change since James Cameron's blockbuster. Nonetheless, I decided to commemorate the occasion by watching movies—and no, not that one, in any number of D's.

First, A Night to Remember. It's such an innocuous title for a film about one of the greatest disasters in maritime history. But it's also one of the most historically accurate films about the Titanic. In fact, James Cameron liked it so much, he adapted some parts of it for his own epic. It makes a few minor historical errors: the ship is portrayed as sinking in one piece, rather than splitting apart as the stern rose from the water. However, to the filmmakers' credit, this was not known as the time. It wasn't until Robert Ballard's expedition to the wreck in 1985 that it was known for certain that Titanic lay at the bottom in two pieces.

Other than that, A Night to Remember looks great for a 1958 movie, in glorious black and white. The cast is made up of notable British actors (as you would expect for a British movie) that may be somewhat obscure for a North American audience, but there are a few familiar faces: for example, Honor Blackman (Goldfinger, The Avengers) and David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E., NCIS).

From the sublime to the ridiculous: 1980s Raise the Titanic. The US military has developed an impenetrable missile shield, but need a rare mineral, byzanium, to power it. The only known source of byzanium was from a Russian mine, extracted clandestinely in 1912 by American miners and smuggled to England to be shipped back to the States. Unfortunately, the miners had the bad luck to ship the byzanium on the Titanic. The Americans decide that the easiest way to obtain the byzanium they need is to raise the Titanic and float it to New York, hiring former Admiral James Sandecker (Jason Robards) and his special projects director, Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan).

Raise the Titanic is often cited as one of the most notorious bombs in cinematic history: it made back only a fraction of its $40 million budget (a seemingly small amount in an era when movies routinely cost $200 million or more, but still a small fortune for 1980) and was nominated for Worst Picture in the first round of Razzie awards, in 1981. To be fair, the movie has a fair bit to commend it, including fair performances by stars Robards and Jordan, a beautiful model of the Titanic wreck used for effects shots, and one of John Barry's best musical scores. I like Clive Cussler's novels, but they're not high literature; they're adventure potboilers suitable for killing time on long trips. The movie version of Raise the Titanic is no different.