Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Reel 20: TITANIC

“I’ll never let go.”

This month marks the 20th anniversary of James Cameron’s TITANIC.

In the early 1990’s, James Cameron had established himself as one of the most exciting directors in Hollywood; having wowed audiences and critics with THE TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), THE ABYSS (1989), and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991). His experience in those films were part of his journey to Titanic; the most famous maritime disaster in all of history.

It was a fascination with shipwrecks which would lead Cameron on his own historic voyage. His experience with his ambitious film THE ABYSS, which was mostly shot underwater, sparked a fascination with shipwrecks within him, and with the RMS Titanic being the biggest in history, it was natural for the eager director to tell a story onboard that doomed vessel. The ship had claimed over 1500 souls, and to make the ugly disaster tangible for audiences, Cameron decided to focus on just two. And with those two characters, he injected classic sensibilities, and he pitched the project as Romeo and Juliet on board the Titanic.

Filming for TITANIC began nearly three years before production began, with Cameron himself capturing new footage of the actual wreck. Never one to be shackled by technical limitations, Cameron designed new camera housings and lighting rigs to capture some of the most stunning footage of the wreck at the time; an important element to capture, as the wreck of the ship is as famous as its history. With a close eye for historical detail, the original designers of Titanic were consulted, along with the original makers of Titanic’s china, glassware, fixtures, furniture, and decorations. Historians were hired, and a full-scale set of the ship was built; ballooning the budget to $200 million…which was unheard of at the time.

The important roles of Jack and Rose, the star-crossed lovers separated by class, were the most vital to the film. For the role of Jack, the poor boy, Cameron cast 21 year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, who ironically was famous for his role in the stylish ROMEO AND JULIET film in 1996. British actress Kate Winslet was cast as Rose, the rich girl…and the chemistry between the two young leads would drive the film. The rest of the impressive cast included Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, David Warner, Kathy Bates, Victor Garber, Bernard Hill, Jonathan Hyde, Bernard Hill, Eric Braeden, Bernard Fox, and Ioan Gruffudd. Bill Paxton would play a treasure-hunter in the modern day which bookended the film, and Gloria Stuart, who was 87 years old at the time, would play an elder version of Rose.

A combination of practical effects and CGI, which was in its infancy at the time, would be used to bring TITANIC to life. An enclosed 5,000,000 gallon tank was used for filming the flooding interiors. Cameron, who had a reputation for putting his actors through hell during production of THE ABYSS, was once again not afraid to go for realism. The score was composed by James Horner, who chose Celine Dion to provide vocals for the title track, My Heart Will Go On.

The on-screen results were stunning, and would put the world into a few-found interest in Titanic; a mania that had not been seen since the wreck was found in 1985. TITANIC would become the highest-grossing film of the year, and would be the highest grossing of all-time by 1998…and would remain so for 12 years before Cameron’s own AVATAR would overtake it in 2008. At the Golden Globes, TITANIC would win four, including Best Motion Picture-Drama, along with Best Director, Original Score, and Original Song. Its crowning achievement would come at the Oscars, where it would win 11 of its 14 nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Visual Effects, Dramatic Score, and Original Song. It would overall win nearly 90 awards from various award-giving bodies from around the world, and in 2017 was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


This Blogger has fond memories of seeing TITANIC in 1997 with his group of friends. Not knowing what to expect, we were floored…not only by the grand scale and execution of the story, but by the overwhelming amount of emotion that it dug up. It was the rare film which made men cry, and its images and themes stuck with us long after the credits rolled. And in this Blogger’s long-list of lessons learned from the movies, this was the film that taught me never to consume an extra-extra-large drink during a three-hour movie which has a lot of rushing water. Never again.

Twenty years later, TITANIC still stands as James Cameron’s most complete work. Even though its scale and story are enormous, it has an intimacy with its characters which gives the film a lot of heart. Its statements on love, life, and social class stick true to this day. For a ship that had sunk in 1912, its legacy seemed to be set forever, but TITANIC the film added more to its legend. It was made in the spirit of the great Hollywood epics of a long gone age, and despite having an ending that was obvious, made the journey more worthwhile than the destination.

“She’s the largest moving object ever made by the hand of man.”

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