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True or False: Titanic Edition

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The 1997 romance film, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio, is based on the true and tragic story of the White Star Liner’s first ship, the RMS Titanic, and her fateful maiden voyage. It’s a drama made to be entertaining, so of course liberties were taken. But just how much of the movie is true, and how much is for the viewer?

The movie opens up on a diving expedition. The Titanic was first discovered by Dr. Robert Ballard in 1986. Since then, many expeditions have been launched from several different countries carrying archeologists, documentarians, tourists, and treasure hunters. James Cameron could be considered one of the latter, as he hired two vessels to capture real footage of the wreckage for the movie, though his respect for the vessel was greater than other sightseers. Hoxley’s engagement gift to Rose, the “Heart of the Ocean” Diamond, is fictional, but imitates the Hope Diamond’s story: bought by Louis XIV, worn until the overthrow of Louis XVI, given to the new French government, auctioned with most of the other crown jewels, and sold to numerous places, some untraceable. The Hope Diamond, however, did not end up at the bottom of the ocean, as it was too high in historical and monetary value.

Rose Dewitt Bukater’s aristocratic wardrobe closely resembled dresses and hats of the time, with extravagant colors and fabrics, a higher waistline than the previous Victorian waist, and floral or feathery embellishments. Men of the day wore uniquely patterned suits and short-brimmed, shallow-crowned “straw boaters.” The average cost of a first class ticket was $70,000 in today’s money, and the most elaborate, like Mr. Hoxley would reserve, were multi room accommodations. Dinner was announced by a bugler and consisted of up to 14 courses. John Jacob Astor IV was the richest passenger on board and his wife Madeline was indeed pregnant. She survived, he did not. The co-founder of Macy’s, Mr. Isidor Straus and his wife, who refused to be separated from him, drowned also, and are represented in the movie laying in their bed as the ship sank. The “Unsinkable Molly Brown” was boisterously Irish and “new money,” as Rose’s mother scoffed. Mrs. Brown was also very adamant about helping in the aftermath of the disaster and helped establish a recovery ship before getting off the Carpathian in New York.There was also, in fact, a Mr. Guggenheim, who was travelling with his French mistress, and is reported to have dressed with his valet in their best evening wear and were “prepared to go down like gentlemen,” while smoking and drinking brandy.

Bruce Ismay, the manager of White Star line, supposedly pressured Captain Smith to increase Titanic’s speed in order to make a good impression on passengers and future customers, but this was never confirmed, though Ismay testified in the Senate inquiry that the intention was to run her at full speed within the next few days (before she sank). He did survive, though the movies speculation that he dressed as a woman is unfounded. Ismay was brutally shamed by the English and American papers for his cowardice, and his public career ended in 1913. As for Officer Murdoch, who in the movie, shot himself after shooting two men trying to board a lifeboat, many reports of an officer’s suicide exist, but none give a name and Murdoch is speculatory at best.

Some of the most dramatic events were not for cinematic entertainment, however. The band really played until the ship sank, and the lights didn’t go out until the ship split in half, thanks to men in the boiler rooms. One of Titanic’s funnels broke from its cables as the ship rose out of the water, and though the angle is unsure, the science of the Titanic’s split is sound. Titanic was found in two pieces on the ocean floor about a third of a mile apart with a five-by-three mile debris field around the wreck. Jack and Rose’s angle of entry, and their ability to lie on the railing as the ship entered the water is speculatory, but the split was violent, and the stern could have been pulled up again by the reinforcing false bottom which supposedly prevented the fully submerged bow and still-floating stern from separating for several moments.

The reality of the gates which allegedly prevented third class passengers from escaping is that they existed in compliance with U.S. immigration laws, which stipulated that steerage be kept separate from second and first class to ensure that disease was not spread. Titanic would stop at Ellis Island and unload its immigrants for health checks before docking in New York. The gates were not in place to keep third class passengers from boarding lifeboats, and the most influential issue for their survival was the language barrier and resulting inability to communicate urgency and direction.

Rose and Jack’s love affair is, however, completely for the sake of the romantic plot and neither were real passengers aboard the “unsinkable” ship. Rose’s Picasso paintings were also invalid, as none of his work was aboard or lost on the ship. Their survival (or death) were very accurate in portrayal. Many passengers died of hypothermia in the estimated 28 degree water (Fahrenheit) and only six were successfully retrieved by returning lifeboats. Fifth Officer Howard Lowe led the two rescue boats, and, as the movie accredits, the effort to empty them by tying lifeboats together and compacting passengers.

As a whole, the movie was surprisingly accurate. Small details like Rose’s gossip and the reaction of officers to the approaching disaster were researched and true. The only truly inaccurate or fictional elements would be the main characters themselves and the way in which the ship sunk beneath the surface. The tragedy and the people who suffered it were duly described and respected.

Truth rating: 9/10

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True or False: Titanic Edition