It is the tragic story that everybody knows the end to – the doomed Titanic sinks. Its final hours have become the stuff of myth – but how much have the various film versions of the story helped to create and reinforce these legends?
One hundred years ago RMS Titanic raced into an iceberg at almost full speed. Two-and-a-half hours later, it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic with the loss of over 1,500 men, women and children.
It has inspired a host of films, documentaries and conspiracy theories.
The re-release of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster in 3D is a reminder that many people’s knowledge of the events of 14 April 1912 comes not from historical fact, but the silver screen.
In Cameron’s Titanic, the heroine’s mother looks up at the ship from the dock in Southampton and remarks: "So, this is the ship they say is unsinkable."
But this is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding the Titanic, says Richard Howells, from Kings College London.
"It is not true that everyone thought this. It’s a retrospective myth, and it makes a better story. If a man in his pride builds an unsinkable ship like Prometheus stealing the fire from the gods… it makes perfect mythical sense that God would be so angry at such an affront that he would sink the ship on its maiden outing."
Contrary to the popular interpretation the White Star Line never made any substantive claims that the Titanic was unsinkable – and nobody really talked about the ship’s unsinkability until after the event, argues Howells.
Although the sinking of the Titanic happened around 15 years after the birth of cinema, and the disaster featured heavily in the silent newsreels of the day, there was very little footage of the ship itself.
This was because the Titanic was not big news before it sank. Its sister ship the Olympic effectively stole the limelight on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1911. It had the same captain as the Titanic, travelled the same route, had the same safety facilities and the same number of lifeboats – or lack thereof.
Olympic’s hull "was painted a light grey purely so that it would look fantastic in the news reel footage", says John Graves, from the National Maritime Museum in London.
Some of this footage was used for the Titanic newsreel after the disaster, but with any telltale signs scratched or inked out.
Simon McCallum, archive curator at the BFI, believes this misrepresentation "fed into the conspiracy theories and mysteries around [the Titanic]. Film makers could project their own narratives and agendas on the event from the get-go".
"History turned into myth within hours and certainly days of the sinking," agrees Richard Howells.
The band’s final song
One of the most vivid images to feature in many of the Titanic films is of the band playing as the ship sinks. The story goes that the musicians remained on deck, in an attempt to keep up passengers’ spirits – and the last tune they played was the hymn Nearer, My God, To Thee. None of them survived, and they were celebrated as heroes.
The Daily Mirror’s front page of 20 April was reproduced as a postcard: "Bandsmen heroes of the sinking Titanic play ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ as the liner goes down to her doom."
Simon McCallum says eyewitness accounts suggest the band did play on the deck, but there is debate about what their final song was – with many accounts describing how the band played ragtime and popular music.
"The passenger that recalled that particular hymn being played was lucky to get away quite some time before the ship sank. We will never really know as all seven musicians perished – but it’s poetic licence. Nearer, My God, To Thee is such an evocative hymn that works as a romantic image in film," McCallum says.
Paul Louden-Brown, from the Titanic Historical Society, worked as a consultant on James Cameron’s film. He says that the musician scene in the 1958 film A Night To Remember was so beautifully crafted that Cameron decided to repeat it in his film.
"He told me, ‘I stole that entirely and put that into my film, because I loved it, it was such a strong part of the story.’"
Death of Captain Smith
Little is known about the final hours of Captain Smith, but he is remembered as the hero, despite apparently failing to heed ice warnings, and not slowing his ship when ice was reported directly in his path.
"He knew how many passengers and how many spaces were in the lifeboats, and he allowed lifeboats to leave partially filled," says Louden-Brown, who doesn’t accept the rosy portrayals of the captain on celluloid.
In the flat, calm conditions that night, the first boat to leave Titanic’s side, with a capacity of 65, is said to have contained just 27 people. Many of the lifeboats went off half empty and didn’t come back to pick up survivors.
"History records him as dying a heroic death. Statues were erected in his memory. There were postcards produced and stories of him swimming through the water with a child in his arms, saying ‘good luck, lads, look after yourself’… all of which never happened," adds Louden-Brown.
"Captain Smith is ultimately responsible for all the failures of the command structure on board, nobody else can take the blame."
Captain Smith did not issue a general "abandon ship" order – which meant many passengers would not have realised the Titanic was in imminent danger. There was no plan for an orderly evacuation, no public address system, and no lifeboat drill.
John Graves agrees that on that fateful night "Smith seems to have vanished into the ether".
He thinks that the captain may have become traumatised when he realised there were insufficient lifeboats.
"His possibly unclear state of mind is illustrated by the fact that he got the design of the Olympic and Titanic mixed up. The latter’s promenade deck was enclosed in part, yet he ordered lifeboats to be boarded from that deck, rather than from the boat deck."