Produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau
Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron
Released by Paramount and 20th Century Fox

The umpteenth movie about the sinking of the great ship finally meets modern standards. James Cameron’s Academy Award-winning Titanic may be the “movie of the year,” but it is just as dishonest, immoral, cowardly, vulgar, and historically ignorant as our own age is. The true story of the Titanic is the stuff of tragedy (in the Greek sense), heroism, and history. So Hollywood has decided to skip it; the young wouldn’t understand. Instead, we are given a three-hour melodrama of post-adolescent lust, combining the philosophical depth of 1970’s Love Story (“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”) with the epic grandeur of a lemming migration.

Some older people might remember the elegant, 1953 Barbara Stanwick-Clifton Webb drama of the same name, which provided a moving love/hate story, with surprising twists and sparkling dialogue, ending in self-sacrifice and transcendent glory, while never forgetting the saga of the sinking ship. Florence King accurately predicted that Hollywood would never again permit such a film with its powerful ending, because “If I can respond emotionally to a full throated rendition of ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ with every atheistic fiber of my being, imagine the effect it would have 1 millions less warped. The resulting spiritual rejuvenation would bankrupt e sex-and-violence business overnight.” Other people will remember the 1958 film A Night to Remember (based on Walter Lord’s historical report and analysis) in which the ship is the whole story, and nothing is lost by the absence of a subplot. These were movies of another age, if not another planet.

The excuse usually offered for a degrading movie re-make is that it is a more accurate description of the historical events. Although this lie is less harmful than philosophical dishonesty, it must be dealt with at the outset lest one be accused of seeking to perpetuate pretty myths. The errors in this movie range from anachronistic howlers to blind modern hubris. A few of the former: Only two classes—first class (bad), steerage (good); second class must have played hooky. The obligatory (if cynical) church service with the old Episcopalian hymn for protection from “peril on the sea,” strangely includes the entire verse added in 1937 (25 years after the Titanic sank) about “peril in the air.” (The Flying Titanic?) The prologue of modern divers resurrects the old debate among survivors concerning whether the ship broke in half while upended and trots it out as a “new discovery” revealed by computer graphics (if it’s on the monitor, it must be true). Yet there is no mention of the new discovery—that the Titanic‘s steel was sulfuric and inferior, making the hull as brittle as glass in icy water.

Slightly more serious is the film’s suspension of the laws of physics: the suction from the huge, vanishing ship only mildly tumbles those people (including our lead couple) hanging onto the stern. All the floating survivors are thickly coated with glittering ice in 40 degree water and calm, 60 degree air. Earlier, however, our leads swim throughout the interior of the sinking ship, in their skivvies, with no apparent discomfort. Interestingly, the higher the deck, the deeper the water. Stacked dishes start to slip only when the ship is nearly vertical. The passengers on the outside decks are sliding (tobogganing?) down the entire, steep length of the ship, while those inside are still ambling along horizontal passageways.

The next step down, for the show as well as society, is the vulgarity cheered throughout. It could thrill only those teenagers who think that “hawking” onto well-dressed matrons and other strangers is the height of wit. The bratty leads delight in it.

Since the weak “love” plot—boy meets betrothed girl, they copulate in the backseat of an auto stored in the hold, then devote themselves to insulting everyone else on board—can’t fill out the film, scraps must do: an evil and cuckolded villain who would have been an embarrassment in a 1912 music hall; a motionless 20-minute death scene, with mumbling; a ubiquitous, priceless navy blue “diamond” with nary a sparkle (perhaps plastic was expensive in 1912). The “best friend” of the male lead is finagled on board by him, then forgotten 15 minutes from port, never to be seen or heard from again. The Second Officer, guilt-ridden from having to protect a lifeboat with a firearm, blows his brains out. The villain shoots at the fleeing fornicators until he’s out of ammo, but he can’t seem to hit anything, however close. (His butler also is armed and incompetent.) And here we thought the cold water was the real threat.

Now we come to the danger of this movie as cultural icon, the reason for producing it and for its critical acclaim: the total deconstruction of history, virtue, society, and taste. Some of this just shows off the filmmaker’s attitude problem: Picasso’s and other modern artists’ canvasses are dragged in merely to offend the rich philistines and to be praised by the oh-so-hip “hero”/artist (whose charcoal sketch of his nude lover, a tiresomely repeated plot device, reveals that his own style runs more to old Vargas Playboy nudes, or the Betty Grables on World War II fuselages, sans swimsuit).

The female lead is, of course, the only person to count the lifeboats and passengers and discover the discrepancy, as soon as the Titanic is at sea. Says our sensitive hero, “You’re the finest girl . . . uh . . . woman I’ve ever known.” Quotes attributed to Freud are used to bludgeon male passengers. A major theme is that in the bad old days women could advance only by marrying rich husbands, while men had it made. The historical fact is that up until the “greedy” Victorians almost all European and American super-rich, male and female, got that way by marriage or inheritance, at least since William the Conqueror. Even today, ambitious male executives must court their superiors as assiduously as any desperate spinster. The heroine of this movie scorns the rich men as “Masters of the Universe”; perhaps she read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities . In the epilogue, framed photographs show that this female survivor, formerly a betrothed bride cruelly oppressed by thoughts of future wealth and “cotillions,” becomes a penniless but liberated aviatrix, horse-master (-mistress?), and, judging by one fuzzy picture, head of a top law firm. But that’s to be expected from a finishing-school girl who decks burly sailors on the Titanic and can cut handcuffs off with one blow of a fire-ax.

Add to this mess slanders against the individuals whom history and survivors recorded as acting heroically: Guggenheim is shown as a selfish stuffed-shirt for dying with dignity; the officers take cash bribes from the “Masters of the Universe” for berths on lifeboats; the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown is a useless coward (bullied and defeated by a male, of course); Captain Smith is a buffoon, brow-beaten into dangerous speed by the greedy rich; John Jacob Astor is a cardboard fop; and the Strauses, who in real life deliberately chose to die together, are shown only silently stuck in a floating bed. The orchestra members who gave their lives to calm the passengers are portrayed as fools who actually increase the panic. The sop to religion is in the person of a droning priest, who, in skillful closeups, shows us more of his tonsils and fillings than of his faith.

It would be forgivable to turn the sinking of the Titanic into a mere misfortune rather than a tragedy, but to make it trashy is not. The overall theme of this movie is the negation not only of those values illustrated in history and in previous films, but of virtue itself, and any human capacity for it.

The characters, from leads to bit-parts to extras, without even one exception, are so repulsive or irritating that one feels like cheering their deaths, if not actually throttling them. But that would be a waste of energy, because during the epilogue the passengers are resurrected into the ship’s grand hall to applaud deliriously the reunion of the iceberg-crossed lovers in the afterlife, 80 years later. And this movie cost a mere $200 million to make—the most expensive in history. Truly a film for our time and culture. Shuffleboard, anyone?