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Why do we keep re-sinking the Titanic?

2012 April 14
by Paul Vallely

Why do we keep re-sinking the Titanic? Clearly once was not enough to judge by the flood of documentaries, dramas and articles which have filled the past days, weeks and months ahead of this weekend’s 100th anniversary of the great seagoing disaster in which 1,517 people died when the state-of-the-art steamship hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912, and sank the following morning.

She sank the first time under the weight of the dark water which flooded through the long gash in six of the watertight compartments at the front of the ship’s hull. She sinks again and again in the popular imagination under the burden of added cultural significance. History turned into myth within days of the sinking.

Once that myth began to form poetic truth took over from the historical version. So much so that the official historic consultant to James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, was told that “under no circumstances” could he alter the script because “this is what the public expect to see”. Truth might be stranger than fiction, but fiction is altogether neater than truth – and it tells us something revealing about our own times.

The economy with the truth began almost at once. The Titanic was not big news before she set sail. She was following in the wake of her White Star Line sister ship the Olympic which has made the same maiden voyage from Southampton to New York a year earlier. There was plenty of footage of that so after the disaster filmmakers surreptitiously spliced bits of it into their Titanic newsreel with giveaway details scratched or inked out.

So it went on, with the conscious duplicity reaching its nadir with the 1943 Nazi film version commissioned by Goebbels which depicted J Bruce Ismay, the president of the company that built the Titanic, as power-mad Jewish businessman who bullies the brave Teutonic captain into driving the ship too fast through the ice so he can manipulate the share price of the White Star Line. Warnings by the ship’s First Officer (a German, of course) were ignored. Moviemakers have continued, perhaps less consciously, to project their own agendas onto the events ever since.

The idea of a romance across the rigid class barriers at the heart of  James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic is a historic impossibility, given that there were locked doors between First and Third class but it speaks to modern notions of equality and love. The locks were at the insistence of the New York immigration authorities who wanted to quarantine new immigrants to prevent the spread of infectious diseases but Cameron’s film implies, with no evidence, that the gates were to keep the plebs from crowding into the inadequate number of lifeboats.

Of course, it says a lot about Edwardian attitudes to class that there were no lifeboats on the Third Class decks but only on the First and Second Class promenade. As a result two thirds of First Class passengers survived where less than one third of steerage passengers did. Even so the imbalance was the result of unthinking obedience to regulations, according to the official British inquiry report, rather than any malicious intent to keep the poor from the boats.

Imposing the lens of the present on the past makes for the better story, of course, and the doomed opulence of the great ship nicely foreshadows the end of Empire which the First World War blew apart just two years later.

Above all the Titanic speaks of our need for heroes and villains, saints and sinners. The official British inquiry report concluded that J Bruce Ismay helped with loading and lowering several lifeboats before jumping into the last lifeboat to leave the starboard side as it was actually being lowered.

But that was too late to save him from the judgement of history. He was branded a coward thanks to the newspapers’ of William Randolph Hearst, the US press magnate who was an old business enemy and whose papers’ rechristened the hapless man “J Brute Ismay”. Stories were told, again with no evidence, that he had spurred the Titanic captain to travel too fast.

By contrast the captain, Edward Smith, had statues erected in his memory and postcards produced of him swimming through the water with a child in his arms, saying ‘Good luck, lads, look after yourself’ – again on no historical evidence.  Thus the man directly responsible for the route and speed of the Titanic is remembered as a hero, whilst a man who tried to save lives is a villain . There haven’t been many films about the bureaucrat at the British Board of Trade who allowed Titanic to sail with too few lifeboats.

Perhaps the Titanic has such an imaginative hold on us because, as Dunkirk testifies, the British love a tragedy even better than a triumph. It is a story of Edwardian self-confidence and hubris, a Babel-like over-reliance on technology in the face of the force of nature or the demands of faith. But bending the past to suit the needs and self-certainties of the present has its dangers too. So how do we make a myth out of that?

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