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Glacial Centennials: On Titanic Films and Scott of the Antarctic

Damn the continuity, full speed ahead: "Titanic" (1953).
by Alex Paquin

It is seemingly impossible to be unaware of the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of a certain ship once described as unsinkable, especially after the tasteful re-release of James Cameron's 1997 opus (in one more dimension than it used to have, unless one is talking about the story, which remains at just one). This new opportunity to see the film on a large screen leaves me, if you will pardon the pun, cold. It is not so much that I did not like the film -- I must admit that I saw it thrice in cinemas and even bought the soundtrack album -- but that I am now quite ashamed of having enjoyed it so much in spite its obvious flaws; an "erreur de jeunesse", if you wish. The cloying melodrama tended to dwarf the magnitude of the tragedy, and the final cut skipped memorable incidents that should have been included, all those little details that made Walter Lord's book "A Night to Remember" a classic.

In spite of this, I am not prepared to call the 1997 Titanic the worst picture on its subject; that distinction goes to the 1953 film of the same title, directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. It also obtained something which eluded Cameron's version: an Academy Award for its screenplay.

One can hardly blame the 1953 Titanic for getting its technical details wrong, despite a claim in the opening titles that published material from the public inquiries both in England and the United States had been consulted. It was Lord's book, only published in 1955, that provided most of the lore surrounding the ship, but Lord is known to have relied on the research made by 20th Century-Fox for this film. It is what was done with that research that now confounds the mind, as none of it seems to have been incorporated into the picture; one is cynically tempted to suggest that it was squeezed into Spyros Skouras' gold-plated movie-making machine to produce a typical fifties Hollywood film. Titanic paradoxically marked the ending of an era at Fox -- shot in the Academy ratio and in black and white, it was released the year the studio would begin employing CinemaScope -- while being the precursor of another, the disaster spectacular of the 1970s, padded as it was with cardboard characters that only existed as filler for the tragedy to come. The problem is that this 98-minute film takes over an hour before getting to the iceberg, hence we have plenty of time to make acquaintance with its cast of estranged husbands and "suspended" priests, all of whom are fictional, when all we are meant to care about is whether they will go down with the ship.

And what a sinking it was. The ship is seen with the iceberg on its starboard side, but the next shot shows the iceberg piercing the hull on the port side. This is not some fleeting microphone reflection in a corner that you have to go through frame by frame to notice; this is in the middle of the screen, and there is nothing else to look at. Worse, the same scene was re-used, without the slightest modification, in The Unsinkable Molly Brown a decade later. The second shot -- the one known to be inaccurate, as the iceberg punctured the ship on the starboard side -- could easily have been flipped, but the makers obviously preferred a blatant continuity error to an awkward transition that would have violated the 180-degree rule.

Then there is all the rest. In one of the scenes during the sinking, Captain Smith (at least they got his name right) is seen putting a pencil on a counter, from which it immediately rolls off. It was too eager a demonstration that no, the filmmakers did not just tilt the camera, and that yes, the set was really at an angle, as though they knew that the rest of the film looked like it was not even taking place on an ocean at all. In every other scene where the ship is listing, pieces of furniture suspiciously remain glued in place, and people can be seen running down heavily inclined staircases with such grace that one wonders if they had been training for years in anticipation of this moment. Adding insult to injury, the ship makes its final plunge as the result not of water leaking into one compartment after another but of the boilers blowing up.

It would be too easy to dismiss the 1953 Titanic as an anachronistic fantasy (the mores and costumes place it in the 1930s rather than 1912) that never attempted to accurately replicate the ship or its historical passengers, that seemed singularly afraid to let water touch its sets, and that thought that polystyrene floating around a shallow tank was a convincing alternative to the North Atlantic. However, because of its egregious disregard for its subject matter, it is also the only major film not to treat the Titanic, in The Onion's immortal words, as the "World's Largest Metaphor". The only hint at this is this exchange: "-It must have come close. Did we hit it? -No sir, it hit us." The reply naturally comes, for maximum gravitas, from the defrocked priest. The film might as well have been set on any other ship, as the key word -- unsinkable -- is never even mentioned; when the liner finally hits the iceberg, it is immediately assumed to be foundering.

Before 1953, the Titanic had a relatively subdued screen presence. After a few silents produced shortly after the sinking, the first sound film on the subject was the European-made Atlantic (1929), which could not be named after the ship for legal reasons (the White Star Line, which operated the Titanic, would exist until 1934). It was a crude affair, badly recorded, static, and edited from a blend of sped-up silent footage and sound takes. The acting was worse; John Longden draws out his lines for dramatic effect ("this ship has... three... hours... to live"), and the rest of the cast members are either too timid to make the transition from silents, or believe themselves to be reciting Shakespeare. Director E.A. Dupont was partly to blame, but he was limited by the technical means at his disposal. Even though it is now practically impossible to sit through, it set the pattern of all Titanic films to come, with this line, twenty minutes into the film: "this ship is unsinkable".

Hollywood did not do much with the subject in the thirties, apart from a brief appearance in the 1933 Cavalcade (a single love scene on the deck where the name of the ship is revealed on a life preserver) and a few abortive attempts at a feature film; instead, it was the Nazi propaganda machine which released Titanic in 1943, a feature film that honed and polished the metaphor to the point that it would become impossible to ignore (and makes one wonder whether the 1953 version deliberately tried to avoid it). The culprit here is Anglo-American greed, represented by "Sir" Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who never was knighted but indeed survived the sinking to become the villain of every Titanic film thereafter (excluding, again, the 1953 version, in which he does not appear). In the 1943 film, Ismay hopes to capitalize on a slump in White Star stock prices to buy more shares before letting the Titanic break the speed record; at the inquiry into the sinking, he places the blame on Captain Smith, whom he had coerced into recklessness. The only officer in the film to question the wisdom of maintaining full speed near ice is of course a German, but, unfortunately for the Nazis, Titanic proved a much apter metaphor for Germany than for British avarice (it was even called subversive by at least one academic, who suggested the film was execrable on purpose), leading to the film's ban by the same authorities that had authorized it; its director, Herbert Selpin, was arrested and later found dead in his cell.

The Nazi film was the first to insist that the Titanic was "the world's safest ship", "the first unsinkable ship in the world", to depict the treatment of steerage passengers, and to dwell on its decadence (it was filmed on the Cap Arcona, later sunk at sea by the Royal Air Force with a greater loss of life). It was, in other words, the first typical Titanic film, and it is hardly surprising that Cameron borrowed elements from it for his version.

Speaking of Cameron, his greatest skill was unfortunately offset by his greatest fault; he forces our attention on the story in the foreground whereas the real interest of his Titanic lies in the special effects in the background, namely, in the destruction of the ship. The small details -- an elevator full of water struggling to lift, plates floating off tables, lights flickering amid short circuits, water pouring through walls -- are especially effective in conveying the terror surrounding the collapse of civilization; unfortunately, he decided that this could only serve as the backdrop for a few clichéd characters, leaving the task of identifying the historical elements to Titanic buffs. At least the Cameron version, unlike the deplorable 1996 mini-series quickly put together to capitalize on its upcoming release, was attempting to show, not tell; the mini-series (if you need a reminder, this is the one in which Tim Curry infamously played a steward with a proclivity for thieving and raping) instead chose to blurt out all manners of statistics on the Titanic, and turned the passengers into gossipmongers. Another made-for-television version, the 1979 S.O.S. Titanic, is competently made but remains of little interest. As for the 1980 Raise the Titanic!, based on the novel by Clive Cussler, the least that can be said is that the sheer tastelessness of using a MacGuffin -- also wanted by the Russians -- to justify salvaging the ship is so brazen as to be hilarious. The film was a notorious flop, and the discovery of the wreck just a few years later would reveal that such an operation could not have been carried out.

Titanic buffs tend to point to the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, based on Lord's book, as the best film, and it is difficult for me to disagree with them. It is the only film that discarded the usual melodramatic approach and concerned itself entirely with recorded anecdotes in a detached, restrained style; while this is not the most lavish picture, it remains the most respectful one. The main character in the picture is Second Officer Lightoller, the highest-ranking survivor, played by Kenneth More; the actor's usual one-note performance as the stiff-upper-lip Briton is put to good use here.

If it has become impossible to ignore the hundredth anniversary of the sinking, another centennial, by no means as glamorous but just as tragic, obtained scant coverage in the media, at least outside the United Kingdom. A fortnight or so before the Titanic set sail, Captain Robert F. Scott perished with the rest of his team on their return from the South Pole. The only theatrical film on the subject, apart from documentary footage, is the British-made Scott of the Antarctic (1948), with John Mills in the eponymous role.

In 1948, Ealing Studios had begun to turn to comedy and was just a year away from releasing Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, films now considered classics; in comparison, Scott of the Antarctic was much closer to something Powell and Pressburger might have produced, even though they never made a foray into the biographical genre. Ealing certainly understood its importance; while it would not release a comedy film in colour until 1953 (The Titfield Thunderbolt), Scott of the Antarctic, directed by Charles Frend, was given the Technicolor treatment with none other than Jack Cardiff as director of photography, as well as a score by Ralph Vaughan Williams that was later turned into a symphony. The narration was culled from Scott's diaries, which were retrieved on his body eight months after his death.

It was a film befitting a national hero who had gallantly given his life for England. One would have thought that the British taste for self-sacrifice had been extinguished by 1918, let alone 1948, but the film was clearly intended as the definitive biography on its subject, something that was not meant to be revisited, the last huzzah for a major figure in a Great Britain that had long ceased to exist. It was technically beyond reproach, but it is unpalatable today.

In 1970, Monty Python lampooned the explorer's legacy in "Scott of the Sahara", in which filmmaking expediency outweighed the slightest attempt at historical accuracy. A fight with a lion was in the actor's contract, there were no lions in the Antarctic, so obviously the Antarctic had to go. If only that had been the worst that could have happened to him; instead, the previous assessment of the explorer would soon be revealed as an intricate work of fiction, a persistent myth greatly in need of being debunked.

Unlike the race for the North Pole, for which it was argued that Robert Peary's claim of primacy had been enforced by the clout of his sponsor, the National Geographic Society, that for the South Pole is free of controversy. The Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team arrived there in November 1911, a month before the British party; this was confirmed by the discovery on Scott's person of the letters Amundsen had left for him at the pole. However, Amundsen had four distinct disadvantages when it came to the judgement of posterity: he was not British; he was, unlike Scott, a bad writer; he was "unsportsmanlike" in his "dash for the pole" (he had led everyone, including his financial backers, to believe that he was mounting an expedition to the Arctic, and only announced his real plans en route, when Scott was already on his way), whereas Scott could have claimed to have led a scientific expedition and therefore could not have lost a game he was not playing; and he came back alive. When the Royal Geographical Society held a banquet in the Norwegian's honour, its president, Lord Curzon, offered a toast of "three cheers for the dogs" as the real factor behind Amundsen's success.

Had a Norwegian historian tried to diminish Scott's stature, his accusations would have been dismissed as so much national resentment; but it was the British biographer Roland Huntford who, instead of seeing Scott as a tragic hero, first portrayed him as a temperamental defeatist who was ill-suited to the task of polar exploration in his Scott and Amundsen, published in 1979. The twin biography was later adapted into a British mini-series, The Last Place on Earth (1985), which now gives its name to re-issues of the book; the damage to Scott's reputation was such that Sir Ernest Shackleton came to replace him as Britain's foremost polar explorer.

In 2008, Huntford told The Guardian that "in as much as I had an agenda, it wasn't to run down Scott; rather, it was to rehabilitate Amundsen, who I felt had never been given the credit he deserved outside Norway", which is accurate: his book was the first in English to extensively pay attention to the Norwegian explorer. However, while it respectfully portrayed Amundsen as a ruthlessly efficient and methodical explorer, his persona remained hopelessly dry, making him worthy of much respect but of little interest; instead, Huntford was the first to succeed in humanizing Scott as he debunked him, shedding the dulce et decorum est patina of the tragic hero to replace it with a harrowing sense of inevitable failure, the result not only of the flaws in Scott's character, but also of the rigid social conventions of his time according to which death was preferable to dishonour, no matter how unrealistic the expectations.

The Last Place on Earth begins with Scott (played by Martin Shaw) facing a naval inquiry into a collision caused by his ship. From there, we get a portrait of Scott as a mediocre officer only interested in polar exploration for advancement, and resenting his place in the shadow of an up-and-coming Shackleton, who had made his own bid for the pole and came within 100 miles of his goal. An ambitious wife anxious to demonstrate to the world that she had married a Great Man, a stifling class system, and the prevailing atmosphere of Rule Britannia in which Captain Scott was, in the words of Leonard Darwin of the Royal Geographical Society, "going to prove once again that the manhood of the nation is not dead, and that the characteristics of our ancestors, who won this great empire, still flourish amongst us", complete the picture.

Just as the Titanic represented the triumph of nature over an increasingly complacent belief in technology, Scott put his faith in mechanical sledges that soon proved useless in the harsh Antarctic climate, while Amundsen relied on the traditional method of skis and dog teams. Likewise, Scott, while a meticulous planner, was unimaginative and devoted much of his energy to showing up Shackleton by doing everything in the same way as he had, only better; Shackleton used ponies, so ponies had to be used, even though Shackleton's experience urged against using them. However, his instinct failed him every time he improvised a new course of action, for instance his last-minute addition of a fifth man on the last leg to the pole while his tent could only safely accommodate four. While Amundsen encouraged a spirit of camaraderie between his men, Scott, although leading a private expedition, could not abandon the rank system of the Royal Navy, from which several of his men had been drawn. The casting of both Shaw and Mills reflected Scott's delicate features, but while the 1948 film only sought to make him affable, the 1985 mini-series made those a sign of his inherent weakness; whither the manhood of the nation?

Scott's Norwegian rival was absent from Scott of the Antarctic, and it is perhaps, without Huntford's rehabilitation, what would have happened to him in history books, his name only worth remembering not as the better explorer who, unlike Scott, crossed uncharted territory to reach the pole and, worse, came back alive, but as the winner of a "dash" the British purported to disdain, this setback being necessary to turn Scott's death -- the only possible outcome for failure -- into an act of redemption. In The Last Place on Earth, Amundsen remarks upon hearing of Scott's death: "That's quite a coup. He wins at the last. He wins." Then, reflecting on the claim to posterity of his friend, the American explorer Frederick Cook: "Thirty years in the ice and never lost a single comrade's life, and the world's already forgotten him. Never learned the British habit of dying, the glory of self-sacrifice, the blessing of failure. That's where he went wrong." (Cook, in fact, had it far worse; while Amundsen respected him, he was considered a fraud for having claimed, without corroborating evidence, to have reached the North Pole before Robert Peary, and his assertion that he was the first to ascend Mount McKinley was also debunked.) And when the British turned to the Titanic with A Night to Remember, it was, not surprisingly, just as relentless a celebration of the stiff upper lip and the British habit of dying; there is not much difference between Captain Smith (whose apocryphal last words to his crew were: "Be British") and Captain Scott ("we are weak, writing is difficult, but for my own sake I do not regret this journey, which has shown that Englishmen can endure hardships, help one another, and meet death with as great a fortitude as ever in the past").

Today, Scott's character is mostly a matter of historiography reserved to a small circle of exploration enthusiasts debating whether temperatures were abnormally cold in that fateful month of March 1912; meanwhile, the Titanic has become the purview of the "buff", who likes to come up with a new theory every few years along with a dozen futile what-ifs (Futility being, as they know, the title of the famous Morgan Robertson novella that anticipated the sinking). The hull had too high a carbon percentage, says one hypothesis; no, it's the rivets that gave out, claims another.

As a cautionary tale, however, the Titanic is a failure. Its indictment of technological progress did not stop the blind pursuit of, and increasing reliance on, technology; its exposure of class prejudice has not prevented the broadening of income inequality; its decadence has become our decadence, but we have done nothing to counter it. And instead of solemnly reflecting on the collective tragedy of the Titanic's passengers, or on the most poignant part of Scott's tragedy -- in his case, not his death but his life -- we still clamour, and James Cameron knows it, for more melodrama.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3386
originally posted: 04/14/12 13:33:27
last updated: 12/24/12 00:54:39
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