“My heart will go on,” Celine Dion once crooned, and so apparently does the Titanic.
Fifteen years after James Cameron released his big budget blockbuster and flooded movie theaters everywhere with human tears, this Oscar-sweeping epic is returning to theaters this Friday and in shimmering 3D. But did you know Cameron wasn’t the first to sink the ship?
For this week’s Total Recall we present the long cinematic legacy the Titanic has left in its wake.
When they finally got around to writing the screenplay for Ghostbusters II, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis found themselves faced with the unenviable task of dreaming up a climactic battle that would somehow surpass the original’s. It’s generally accepted that they fell short of that mark, but give them credit — instead of bringing back the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (or using two of him), they dreamed up an over-the-top FX extravaganza that included the ghost of Mayor La Guardia, an entire building covered in pink slime, and a ghost-filled Titanic sailing into the harbor. While conceding that the movie was “Hammered together out of the junkiest of elements,” the Washington Post’s Hal Hinson enjoyed the way it “rattles along with a pleasing rambunctiousness, tossing off its quips and one-liners and scoring on a remarkably high percentage of them.”
Nearly 40 years before Kate and Leo went down with the ship, screenwriter Eric Ambler and director Roy Ward Baker assembled this painstaking adaptation of Walter Lord’s non-fiction tome about the shipwreck. Using blueprints from the ship — and with Titanic fourth officer Joseph Boxhall on board as a technical advisor — A Night to Remember set out to give audiences the most realistic and historically accurate recreation of the crash ever brought to the screen. According to critics, they not only succeeded, they beat the odds and added a gripping drama in the bargain; as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, wrote, “though the tragic story of the sinking of the Titanic is an old and oft-repeated one, it still makes for tense, exciting and supremely awesome drama on the screen.”
Put together the Cold War and one of the world’s most famous shipwrecks, and what do you have? This waterlogged adaptation of the Clive Cussler bestseller about the discovery of “byzanium,” a rare mineral that can help America defeat the Soviet Union once and for all — but only if we can wrest it from the wreckage of the Titanic before they do. A flop so costly it was said to have driven producer Lew Grade out of the film business — and so poorly reviewed that it forever soured Cussler on the idea of having anyone turn one of his books into a movie — Raise the Titanic could only muster a sigh from Roger Ebert, who called it “almost a good movie.”
One of Terry Gilliam’s more breezily fantastical (and, perhaps not coincidentally best-reviewed) films, Time Bandits doesn’t spend as much time on board the Titanic as some of the other entries on this list — but we would have been remiss if we’d compiled it without at least mentioning the brief interlude that the time-traveling Kevin (Craig Warnock) and his diminutive friends spend on the ship before realizing it’s sailing for a watery grave. “This is the only live-action movie I’ve seen that literally looks like pages out of Heavy Metal magazine,” grinned an appreciative Roger Ebert.
Long before James Cameron broke Hollywood budget records with his own Titanic, this 1943 production did the same for Germany — a consequence of an out-of-control set that resulted in the arrest (and “suicide”) of its original director. Produced as a piece of Nazi propaganda, this Titanic uses the crash as a demonstration of capitalist greed, presenting the ship’s poor German passengers as the story’s only real heroes; still, after a brief theatrical run, it was banned by Joseph Goebbels and languished in obscurity for years. “As filmmaking, it’s not much to get excited about,” observed Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain Xpress, “but as a curio, it’s something else again.”
Poor Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb). Not only has his wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) run off and boarded the Titanic’s maiden voyage without him, but once he finally does finagle his way onto the ship, she tells him she wants a divorce — and that he isn’t really the father of their son. Oh, and then the boat hits an iceberg and sinks. But at least the end result won an Academy Award, not to mention the approval of critics like James Sanford of the Kalamazoo Gazette, who deemed it an “Exciting, well-acted version of the infamous voyage.”
It wasn’t the first Titanic film — or even the first one named Titanic — but James Cameron’s iceberg-bound love story certainly struck a chord with audiences, setting sail to the tune of more than $1.8 billion in worldwide grosses. And it’s a good thing, too: at $200 million, it set a new record for the most expensive film ever made, causing many an ulcer on the Fox executive board (and ultimately earning Cameron a hefty chunk of money through his percentage of the profits). And oh by the way, while audiences were filing into the 194-minute Titanic in droves, critics were lining up to give it praise — including Newsweek’s David Ansen, who called it “big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking.”
To use a real-life tragedy as the framing device for a musical comedy about American social mores — and to use the word Unsinkable in the title — is undoubtedly a little crass, but the Broadway hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown made up for it by being too generally charming and good-natured to get upset about, and on the big screen, it benefited from having Debbie Reynolds in the title role. True, most Titanic movies don’t include pie fights or songs like “I Ain’t Down Yet,” but as A.H. Weiler of the New York Times observed, “For all of its shallowness, Molly is a cheerful and entertaining addition to the local screen scene.”