Last month, at another blog, I was in a discussion concerning movies about the RMS Titanic. Since this blogger’s favourite was the 1997 movie, I asked him if he had seen any of the other reasonably good dramatizations of the sinking (1953’s Titanic and A Night to Remember). He said he hadn’t. After this, more discussion led to him writing, “…I just love eye-candy, especially when the pedantic perfectionist in me can scour the ship for inaccuracies and find none.” This gave me the idea to watch that person’s favourite movie and spot the historical inaccuracies.
Titanic is a very long movie, but I eventually managed to find the time to watch it twice and spot inaccuracies. I paid special attention to the ship, and I did spot a few mistakes. I viewed the two–DVD tenth–anniversary edition, and the chapter titles are taken from there. If you have an alternative edition with different chapter titles, these should give you some idea of how far along chronologically the error takes place. Since my list is combined from two different lists created during different viewings, there might be a few cases where the errors are slightly out of order.
The inaccuracies I noticed are after the jump. In a few places I note where there are alternative possibilities or where there is a dispute over what the actually happened. In a couple of spots I speculate on the reasons or suggest corrections. If an error is made repeatedly, I mention it only once. I don’t mention anachronisms or continuity errors. Nor do I mention the “hidden faces” who are extras who represent some other historical person (examples being the older man in Boat 6 and the boy spinning a top). I do not list inaccuracies in deleted scenes. On the real ship there were plenty of people whose lives could have interesting stories woven around them, but I won’t hold using fictional characters against this film. However, I do mention one huge plot hole.
Lastly, it contains spoilers!
“Back to Titanic”
- The layout of windows on the superstructure is wrong. This is probably because the exterior set was shorter than the real thing.
- Rose can be seen wearing a white dress. Ships and seaports are dirty places, especially in an era of coal–fueled ships. Of the 332 casualty reports in the online archives, 19 were of female bodies (bodies numbered 3, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 52–5, 61, 63, 76, 132, 206, 210, 281, 299, 328). I read all of them , and most were found wearing coloured clothes. Only Eileen McNamee (#53), Katherine Buckley (#299), and victim #76 were wearing what could be considered white or light outerwear, and furthermore Buckley and McNamee had dark coats and jackets. Rose would likely be wear similarly–coloured clothing throughout the trip, and especially in a port.
- “It’s over a hundred feet longer than Mauretania…” The Titanic was 882′ 6″ long, the RMS Mauretania was 790′ long, and the RMS Lusitania was 787′ long. Therefore, the Titanic was a little under 100 feet longer than both the Mauretania and the Lusitania, not more than 100 feet longer. This could have been avoided by saying “It’s nearly….” or “It’s about a hundred feet longer.”
- According to Bruce Ismay’s testimony at the American inquiry into the disaster (cite), he occupied the suite (B 52, B 54, B 56) Cal’s party occupies in the film. This is a completely unnecessary error, as the Titanic was nowhere near full. This error could have been avoided by putting the characters in a cabin with no known occupant. For example, according to an incomplete list of first class cabin allocations recovered from the body of steward Herbert Cave (#218), only one cabin on the boat deck was occupied.
- When looking for their cabin, Jack and Fabrizio pass a woman and her children. In reality, single men were berthed in the bow, and single women, married couples, and women with children were berthed in the stern. This sex segregation was required by American immigration laws.
- The Titanic was nowhere near full, and therefore there are too many lights on. Indeed, during that time, a high society woman would be expected to change her clothes several times a day. People aren’t going to do that with the curtains open. Considering that this error appears several other times, including in the iceberg collision (people sleep with the lights on?), it is probably a necessary evil for filmmaking. In reality it would be very dark on deck.
- “We all called her Molly.” In reality, no one called her that. When she was alive, no one called Margaret Brown Molly. If referred to by her given name it would be Margaret or Maggie. The name Molly was applied to her by the lyricist who wrote the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown because “Molly” is easier to sing than “Maggie”.
- “Her husband [JJ] had struck gold someplace out west.” Not quite. According to Wikipedia, the Browns got really rich mostly because JJ invented a way to stop cave–ins in a mine (cite).
“Ode to Titanic”
- Ocean liners had schedules to meet back then, and it seems rather weird to wait until leaving Ireland to go up to full speed.
- The forecastle was kept off–limits to passengers, and therefore no one would be allowed to go there. On the other hand, supposedly, in her unpublished memoirs, passenger Helen Churchill Candee claims to have stood on the forecastle (cite).
- “Jack Dawson.” Just a bugbear. In Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Titanic victim #227 is buried under the name J. Dawson. Due to the coincidence of sharing the same initial as the fictional character, a large number of people have flocked to that grave, leaving a massive amount of flowers, movie tickets, and other stuff there. In reality, J. Dawson is a crew member, an Irish coal trimmer named Joseph Dawson. In other words, Joseph is not Jack. They have nothing to do with each other. Don’t be like this person. If you ever go to Fairview to pay your respects, please, please, please, don’t leave your movie–related junk at Dawson’s grave. Let the dead rest in peace. Instead, why don’t you donate to the trust fund that pays for the maintenance of Titanic graves?
“Sketches and Stories”
- Jack is shown as being able to walk around non–third class areas of the ship. In reality, to comply with American immigration laws (nominally intended to ensure adequate conditions in steerage and implied to intend to prevent the spread of disease), third class passengers were segregated from others by waist–high barriers, doorways, and crew members.
- “Look, here comes that vulgar Brown woman.” JJ and Margaret had started getting rich in 1893 (cite, cite). That is almost two decades before the movie takes place. They both would have had plenty of time to fit in with high society. For that reason, I doubt the Countess of Rothes (or anyone) would say such a thing.
- The conversation about Ismay egging on Smith to go faster is mostly fiction. The Olympic–class vessels were physically incapable of having a realistic chance of winning the Blue Riband. A survivor recalled overhearing a conversation between Ismay and Smith about lighting the last boilers so as to beat the Olympic‘s crossing time. In other words, a liner class maiden voyage record, done for business reasons so as to make each ship look incrementally improved over the previous one. But a speed record for the Blue Riband is total rubbish.
“Learning New Things”
- “Why do they always insist on announcing dinner like a damn cavalry charge?” This line is a variation of one that appears in the 1953 film.
“A Real Party”
- I’m not sure if a higher class passenger visiting a lower class area (slumming it) was explicitly allowed. As far as I know, while not forbidden, it was discouraged, and respect for social conventions of the time could have made it uncommon. As a possible counterexample, a list of second class passengers found at the scene of the sinking says that “Second Class passengers are not allowed on the First or Third Class Decks,” which seems to prohibit slumming by second class passengers, at least.
- During this time, the Titanic was heading roughly westbound. Since this scene takes place at sunset, then the sun should roughly be in Jack and Rose’s faces.
- At night, the bridge and the working areas of the watch would be kept dark in order to preserve night vision. This over–illumination is probably a necessary evil in filmmaking, however, as you’d see barely anything under real lighting conditions.
- From what I can get from online deck plans, it seems like there are too few decks on the way down to the boiler rooms.
“Two Souls United”
- The car is William Carter’s Renault. In reality, the car was crated up. It is possible that the car was actually in pieces; namely, that the Carters were shipping car parts rather than a car.
“‘Iceberg, Right Ahead'”
- The film implies that Jack and Rose indirectly caused the collision by distracting the lookouts. Imagine the lines of questioning at the inquiries!
- Murdoch can be seen ordering the engines reversed on the ship’s telegraph. However, only one account indicates that the engines were ordered reversed, and other accounts report that no such order was given. Indeed, reversing the engines would reduce the efficiency of the rudder, making turning slower. Murdoch was an experienced seaman and would undoubtedly have known this. Hence, it’s controversial whether the engines were ever ordered reversed until after the collision.
- When the Countess of Rothes is shown stepping out of her cabin to talk with a crewman, Andrews can be seen heading down the hall. The Countess said in her own account that her cabin was on B Deck (cite). Alternatively, in the recovered cabin assignment list indicates that her cabin was on C Deck (cite). Andrews’ steward testified at the American Inquiry that Andrews’ cabin was on A Deck (cite). Either way, in order to get to the bridge (on the top deck, [the Boat Deck], which was one deck above A Deck), Andrews would have no need to go near the Countess’ cabin.
“Third Class Panic”
- The metal grille third class passengers are kept behind is known as a Bostwick gate. If you examine the online deck plans you’ll see that only two Bostwick gates existed on the whole ship, both on E Deck. One was in the bow and would have been flooded out very early, and the other was in a crew area near where potatoes were washed. Neither would be a factor in the sinking. The only gates/doors that could have played a role in blocking escape were either opened or were easily climbable waist–high barriers. In other words, the notorious gates keeping passengers trapped below decks, never existed. The presence of these gates is part of the pervasive mythos of the sinking.
- “For God’s sake, man, there are women and children down here! Let us up so we can have a chance.” The closest historical analogue to this line that I know of is that of James Farrell. His actual phrase was either “Great God, man! Open the gate and let the girls through!” or “For God’s sake man, let the girls past to the boats, at least!”. It was actually said up on the after well deck, where a steward as blocking a gate leading into a second class area. The gate in question was only waist–high, and it successfully allowed four Irish women immigrants to pass on their way to safety. The four women all survived.
- The Middle Eastern family looking through a phrasebook is correct in implying that the language barrier was a bigger factor than non–existent Bostwick gates in causing third class passengers to die. However, in reality, Middle Eastern third class passengers had one of the highest survival rates of any nationality in third class. It seems that a number of them were led to the Boat Deck in one large group by crew members, possibly stewards Hart, Cox, and Pearcey. Hence, this family might be a bad example to use to demonstrate the language barrier.
- Throughout the sinking, the ship was listing.
- Ruth asks if the lifeboats are seated according to class. In reality, a woman or child from third class would get precedent over any man from first class, according to Lowe’s testimony. Indeed, Lowe ordered a man out of a lifeboat at gunpoint.
- Margaret Brown is depicted as being one of the first people in Boat 6. According to her own account, she was one of the last. The only people who got in after her were Arthur Peuchen and a fireman who was transferred from Boat 16 to help row.
“‘Can Anybody Hear Me?'”
- As can be seen on the online deck plans, the Master-at-Arms cabin was in the interior, with no portal. As there were lots of empty cabins, this error could have been avoided merely by appropriating an empty cabin.
- The steward Rose punches (drawing blood) is one of the few who is portrayed rather positively. (In trying to save her, his heart was in the right place.)
“Two Tragic Bullets”
- It is disputed among historians as to which officer committed suicide. While it could have been Murdoch, Chief Officer Wilde, Sixth Officer Moody, Captain Smith, and Purser McElroy have also been suggested.
- Captain Smith is portrayed as passive during the sinking. This is contrary to reality. For example, he at one point ordered someone into Boat 6 to help row.
“Nearer My God to Thee”
- The tune played is properly called “Bethany” (“Nearer My God to Thee” is the title of the hymn the music fits). Another possibility is “Horbury”.
- It is disputed whether Captain Smith died by deliberately going down with the ship. One report has him swimming up to a lifeboat and giving a baby to someone in it, without getting in himself.
- The couple in the bed is Ida and Isidor Straus. Since Isidor’s body was found they were very likely on deck until the end. Therefore, their death is inaccurate.
- Tir na Nog is a real tale from Irish mythology.
- Since a number of the musicians’ bodies were found, they would probably all have life jackets.
- Colonel JJ Astor’s death is inaccurate. Since his body was found he was almost certainly on deck when the ship went down.
“At the Stern” and “A Prayer for the Dying”
- Father Byles is portrayed as reciting the Book of Revelation. In reality, he was reported to be giving the Rosary, which nothing from the Book of Revelation is part of.
- Baker Charles Joughin is portrayed as drunk. This is something he always denied. Indeed, isn’t it obvious that the whole legend of him being drunk and surviving in the water for several hours while holding onto Collapsible B is a load of bullshit? If he was drunk, then alcohol, which dilates the blood vessels near the surface of the skin, would have made him lose body heat faster, making him succumb to hypothermia. If he did survive in the water for hours then he wasn’t drunk, and if he was drunk then he wouldn’t have survived. The legend refutes itself. I think he merely overestimated the time he was in the water before reaching Collapsible B.
“The Death of Titanic”
- No one reported any suction when the stern went down.
“In the Lifeboats”
- “If you don’t shut that hole in your face.” The actual quote is “If you don’t stop talking through that hole in your face there will be one less in the boat,” and it likely said to Thomas Jones after he gave instructions to a man in his boat who didn’t know how to operate an oar.
- The power struggle in Lifeboat 6 is portrayed as going too easily for Quartermaster Hichens.
- According to his testimony, Lowe’s rescue flotilla was of five boats.
“‘We Waited Too Long'”
- If you read Lowe’s testimony at the American inquiry you’ll see that he claimed to have not seen one female body.
- I’ve seen a photograph of a Titanic body (don’t ask). The victim looked pale and “washed out”. It’s possible the victim was “dressed up” for the purposes of identification but if that’s not the case then the bodies in the film aren’t really in the same condition as that in the photograph.
“‘I’ll Never Let Go'”
- No woman was pulled from the water. The only woman to be in the water and live was Rhoda Abbott. She went down with the ship, and after struggling in the water and seeing her two sons freeze to death she managed to get herself into Collapsible A.
“Never an Absolution”
- More than one boat came back. Boat 4 also picked up a few people from the water.
- Cal is portrayed as being in Collapsible A. In reality, after picking up people from the water Lowe raised the sail in his lifeboat and went towards the Carpathia after it became visible. He picked up Collapsible D and towed it, and then rescued the people in Collapsible A. Hence, Cal and Rose would be a close to each other and yet not see each other! That was the major plot hole I referred to.
“A Promise Kept”
- In the Heaven/Dream scene, the character of Trudy Bolt can be seen near the door, standing next to JJ Astor. Bolt is either a stewardess or a maid. The only three female crew members to die were two second class stewardesses and the third class “matron”. The only women from first class to die were Bessie Allison, Edith Corse Evans, Anna Isham, and Ida Straus. None of them were maids or servants. Therefore, no matter what population Bolt belonged to, she should have survived.
Overall, while far more accurate than he 1953 movie, 1997’s Titanic still loses to A Night to Remember in accuracy. Substantial effort was put in casting actors who resembled the historical people they were portraying, and in general the ship in the movie looks quite like what the ship in real life would have looked like. It also incorporated some of the latest research on the sinking when it was made. But despite this, it still uses the same old myths and legends about the sinking. James Cameron had an excellent chance to rectify several myths about the Titanic, and failed to do so. The film might have raised awareness of the sinking and brought it to people’s attention, the same way the discovery of the wreck did before and the centennial did after, but unfortunately some people will still take as fact several falsehoods the film (Bostwick gates, Margaret Brown’s name, etc) utilizes for dramatic purposes.
As for comparisons with A Night to Remember and 1953’s Titanic, Cameron’s film wins on visual accuracy or appearance, and special effects, A Night to Remember wins on historical accuracy, and the 1953 film wins on writing and plot lines. So there, I call it a tie.
Update: I found a website with more inaccuracies, including several I missed.