From the Letters to the Editor column in the April 1999 Perspectives
On Film and Media
Carolsue Holland, Arthur N. Gilbert, Robert Brent Toplin, and Fred C. Smith, April 1999
Toplin on Titanic
To the Editor:
When a professional historian titles a review of a film "Titanic: Did the Maker of True Lies Tell the Truth about History?" (Perspectives, March 1998), it is not too much to expect that the reviewer would include at least a few tidbits of authenticated information about the Titanic and her fatal maiden voyage. Given the word choice of this title, such information logically might become the basis on which Toplin expresses his judgments and declares his opinions as an expert in film and media who also happens to be a practicing historian. Instead, Toplin justifies James Cameron's "true lies" by adding his film Titanic to a list of what Toplin calls impressive historical dramas because it "... leaves audiences with a sense that they were briefly witnesses to the past and experienced its emotions." Rubbish! It's an insult to films like The Killing Fields and Schindler's List.
Toplin as a professional historian should demonstrate a greater degree of discrimination and critique the gross absence of historical accuracy. His review is infuriating because it panders to a Hollywood celebrity who transposed the gimmicks of Terminator and Aliens to the maiden voyage of the Titanic, a significant watershed event in Western cultural history. In the 35 years since I began my PhD training, as well as throughout my 30-plus years as an academic historian, I've faithfully followed the basic axiom of communication in the field of history: professionals establish an expertise with the subject matter by consistently integrating what is found in the written record with their assumptions, analysis, and conclusions. I didn't go to see James Cameron's Titanic expecting that his movie would satisfy these criteria. Indeed, I even enjoyed the film because I found it entertaining to watch how 1990s technological hoopla turned the old Barbara Stanwyck-Clifton Webb Titanic and the Kenneth More film A Night to Remember into such an expensive cinematographic extravaganza. There were incipient history lessons to be learned to be sure, but these will never derive from Cameron's version of cinematographic sentimentality. Cameron's film wasn't any more believable than the Stanwyck-Webb Titanic, which lacked the oceans of mounting flood waters, but also had a poignant love interest in the relationship between the characters played by Robert Wagner (a cabin-class passenger) and Audrey Dalton (the daughter in a family belonging to an international aristocracy of money).
I was appalled by the failure of Cameron's ill-fated attempt to create in 1995 a 101-year-old survivor called Rose to suggest how the character Rose played by Kate Winslet met destiny in the icy waters of the North Atlantic during the night of Sunday–Monday, April 14–15, 1912, when she lost her steerage-class lover, Jack. Given all the discoveries in the search for the sunken Titanic during the 1980s, it would have been far more believable to have set the contemporary portion of the story in 1985 when there still were several elderly female, physically fit Titanic survivors actually available to go on an expeditionary cruise, who would have served as a model for Gloria Stuart's Rose because Cameron needed a present-day context. After all, in historical context, there is nothing more or less authentic in setting the contemporary part of the Titanic story in 1985 instead of 1995.
Now to the "present-day context": The Discovery Channel's broadcasts offered a reliable basis by which Toplin might have raised questions about Cameron's failure to recognize that he could intrigue moviegoing audiences with some of the real mysteries surrounding Titanic's 1912 voyage to doom. In fact, if Cameron's Titanic stands on its own as prima facie evidence, his historical researchers failed to provide him with adequate, pertinent, and authentic information. Toplin, moreover, is just as derelict. He glosses over the film and undersea camera studies made during August 1996 as major aspect of an expeditionary cruise organized by R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., on which more than 2,100 Titanic "freaks" sailed from New York and Boston on two luxury ships to 41°43´ north latitude, 49°56´ west longitude, to witness and experience an attempt to raise and recover a substantial part of Titanic's hull using a unique submersible craft especially designed with the most powerful underwater photographic lighting gear and inflatable salvage apparatus ever assembled. But I excuse Toplin for glossing over these details; R.M.S. Titanic, Inc., itself, did a very poor job in providing intriguing historical information and details about the ship and the voyage in the very well-attended briefings and lectures held on board both cruise liners. I was a paying passenger on an exciting expeditionary vacation, and I limited my professional involvement to writing daily Titanic reports for the several German newspapers that had retained my services.
Failure to communicate is increasingly common when specialists do not discriminate between celebrity and notoriety. Cameron, of course, is within his rights to do whatever he wants with his characters and information. But I object to Toplin foisting his ill-informed opinions about Titanic and the details of its voyage using simplistic criteria; a large body of available documentary evidence (absolutely unindicated) shows that there is much more than the series of bogus statistical questions about the Titanic passengers' social class divisions and stereotypical economic and cultural prejudices. Cameron substituted notoriety for authenticity in the making of his Hollywood extravaganza, and he made a considerable investment to do so. As a historian, however, I object to Toplin trying to convince me, a member of an audience of his peers who pay significant dues to the AHA for a subscription to Perspectives, that the film merits the kind of celebrity which attempts to offer meaningful understanding about a major historical event.
What was extraordinary on the August 1996 Titanic cruise were those uncut Discovery Channel videos simultaneously broadcasting what was happening two and a half miles under the surface of the sea via closed circuit television to every stateroom on both ships. When the Discovery Channel aired both programs—one later in 1996, the other in the spring of 1997—their finished product showed a remarkable job of editing and putting together many exciting minutes of undersea discovery, all of which potentially had a place in Cameron's film if he chose to be authentic. He didn't choose authenticity. But it's his investment and his film.
However, I object to Toplin taking up space in a professional publication to commend Cameron by suggesting that moviegoers might find some historical truths in the film. The real technological achievements, the excitement of seeing artifacts, and the unearthing of the 25-ton, pristine hull section more than three stories high and two stories wide in the undersea debris field were forgotten in Toplin's praise for Cameron's special effects that show the process of a sinking Titanic that is technically inaccurate according to actual findings from the various debris fields and recent investigations by a British Marine Accidents Board conducted by Captain P. B. Marriott in 1992. This time Cameron gives thrills to his moviegoers by taking them to the depths of the Atlantic Ocean instead of to the unexplored galaxies in space where outer space "freaks" expect to find aliens. Just as most of us are anthropomorphic enough to suspend belief when Cameron attributes emotions like love, hate, envy, social climbing, and so on to the alien communities inhabiting outer space, he would have us follow a similar process in order to generalize the descriptions of manners, morals, social codes, status, hairdos, habits of dress and so forth to determine the authenticity of the 2,223 people who sailed aboard the Titanic.
I could lard my comments with additional anecdotal information about the accidental ramming by the Titanic of another ship as she sailed out of Southampton harbor, about a possible colossal insurance fraud perpetrated by J. P. Morgan and the Harland and Wolff shipbuilding company, about the findings, testimonies, and investigations into the unresponsive ship which lay north of where the Titanic sank. There's so much material available and open in the reams of documentary evidence. However, mention of these points illustrates just one opening chapter in my public lamentation about the degree to which the excitement, the challenge, the enjoyment, and the substance of historical study—in this case the tragedy of Titanic's maiden voyage—is being bowdlerized by sloppy oversimplifications and the absence of scholarly standards.
No wonder that university students are unable to discriminate between history and heritage. That Toplin is so atavistic to proclaim to Perspectives readers "...that today's filmmakers present pictures of society with much more of a leftist slant than film theorists have realized" raises imputations about critical analysis predicated on spurious ideological applications. How do you determine whether a film has "a leftist slant"? Do I see "a leftist slant" because Dominick Dunne or some other celebrity critic decides some fictitious element in a movie is or is not ideological? Until I read Toplin's words, I guess I was residing in my ivory tower, convinced that the bankruptcy of the McCarthy era had once and for all erased from the Hollywood scene applications of left versus right, conservative versus radical, reactionary versus liberal. To paraphrase another movie character—Peter Finch playing the network anchor in the film Network—"I'm fed up and I'm not going to take any more of this drivel without speaking out." What a terrible disservice Toplin's uninformed commentary does to the standards of the historical profession!
Troy State University
To the Editor:
I was amazed to find that Professor Robert Brent Toplin had placed Titanic in such distinguished company as Schindler's List and The Killing Fields. I thought it compared favorably to Speed and Mel Gibson's historical mess, Braveheart. In the end, I was hoping that the boat would sink. It seemed a small price to pay to end the excruciatingly bad acting by the young lovers who were saddled with a script by James Cameron that should have gone down with the Titanic, the Lusitania, or the Reuben James. Particularly annoying was the cliché-ridden depiction of the upper classes and the stock-character groom who only needed the line "You must pay the rent" to really fill out his role. This bad guy and his bad manservant actually had the nerve to chain young Jack to a pipe but luckily our heroine saved him with a "may the force be with you" swing of her ax. She could have been in Star Wars.
Pandering to middlebrow artistic name recognition was especially egregious. "Jack could have been another Picasso or Monet, do you get it?" An intelligent exploration of upper-class male values in 1912 was lost in cheap shots and dancing in steerage: they were poor but happy, and they loved their suds. At the end, while the ship was sinking, our heroine blurted out something like, "This is where we met," showing that she really did know the difference between the bow and the stern.
Fifteen hundred dead souls was a small sacrifice to end what passes for romance in American cinema. Our soft-in-the-head Academy voters, encouraged by Professor Toplin, voted it best picture of the year. What it really deserves is an award for the best performance by an iceberg.
—Arthur N. Gilbert
University of Denver
Robert Brent Toplin's Response
I am pleased to see that my essay on James Cameron's Titanic excited spirited reactions.
Professor Holland has certainly delivered a high-intensity response. She claims that my review "justifies" James Cameron's lies, "panders" to Hollywood, raises "bogus" statistical questions, and predicates the analysis on "spurious ideological applications." I was touched, though, when she demonstrated magnanimity, expressing a willingness to "excuse" me for "glossing over" some details in a film made for the Discovery Channel.
Professor Holland offers her most comprehensive indictment when she says, "I object to Toplin taking up space in a professional publication to commend Cameron by suggesting that moviegoers might find some historical truths in the film." This complaint goes to the core of her lengthy letter, and it is also relevant to Gilbert's brief and amusing objection. Both writers seem eager to dismiss the movie as sentimental trash that does no justice to the historical record.
Holland evidently paid a good price to travel on a luxury cruise to witness attempts to raise part of Titanic's hull in 1996, and she wishes that both I and James Cameron gave more attention to that event, which the Discovery Channel publicized in two programs. I am sure she was not happy with my comparative observations in the review, which suggested that Cameron's movie gave a more compelling explanation for the disaster than the Discovery Channel's concentration on the mechanics of shipbuilding. Cameron's Titanic drew attention to numerous human errors before and after the crash. The film showed how radio operators received reports of iceberg fields along the path of travel, but the ship's authorities ignored them. It revealed that the ship reached its highest speed as it approached the danger zone, and that the men posted as lookouts lacked binoculars. Titanic showed, too, that there were only 16 lifeboats aboard, and the captain and the crew failed to respond quickly and adequately once the ship hit the berg. Indeed, some of the lifeboats left only half full. These were among the principal reasons for the disaster. Together, they were more impressive than the Discovery Channel's program about the results of an undersea investigation that concentrated on weak rivets and impurities in the ship's steel hull. I realize it is difficult for Holland to accept the notion that a Hollywood movie presented a more effective interpretation than a television documentary, especially in view of her costly effort to be present at the site of the underwater expedition.
If Holland were making the movie, it evidently would include many other stories. Her motion picture would feature plenty of deep-sea footage from the Discovery Channel's program about metallurgy, a portrayal of the accidental ramming of Titanic as she was sailing out of Southampton, a dramatization of possible insurance fraud perpetrated by business leaders, and an exploration into the inadequate actions of individuals on a nearby ship who failed to respond to the Titanic's distress calls. Holland's Titanic, I dare say, would sink on its first night in the theaters. Creators of motion pictures must focus their stories sharply, or they will lose their audiences in the first minutes. Feature films are not comprehensive analyses of historical events, and certainly they are not substitutes for books.
Professor Gilbert delivers a nice tongue-in-cheek indictment of James Cameron's Titanic, complaining about "excruciatingly bad acting," cliché-ridden portrayals, and a script that should have gone down with the ship. I differ, of course, and not just because the Motion Picture Academy and millions of filmgoers in the United States and abroad loved the film. Titanic uses the story of two invented characters, Jack and Rose, as a device that exposes viewers to many groups throughout the ship: sweaty stokers in the engine room, immigrants in steerage, the wealthy patrons in first-class cabins, and the crew and officers at their work stations. In following Jack and Rose we are, of course, introduced to plenty of syrupy romance and stereotypical images of the noble poor and the effete rich. These are the raw materials of Hollywood's storytelling. Within this melodrama, however, Cameron manages to probe our thinking about class consciousness in the early 20th century and the limitations placed upon women at the time (as well as the challenges someone like Rose could face in asserting her femininity and self-interest).
Cameron also evokes with emotive power the experiences of people during a moment of crisis, much as Steven Spielberg does in the D-Day scenes of Saving Private Ryan. The movie employs special effects to achieve this goal, but the gimmicks are not featured gratuitously, as in many action-oriented movies. James Cameron brought these high-tech bells and whistles into service for what Janet Maslin called in the New York Times "a spectacular illusion: that the ship is afloat again, and that the audience is intimately involved in the voyage." That kind of intimacy is precisely what we hope to find in cinema that attempts to connect audiences' emotions to people in a distant time and place.
—Robert Brent Toplin
University of North Carolina at Wilmington
The "Forgotten War"
To the Editor:
I liked "Translating War: The Combat Film Genre and Saving Private Ryan" (October 1998) and thought it was a good generalized analysis. But then, toward the end, the author Jeanine Basinger really slipped up and wrote: "By 1960, after more than a decade of peace and prosperity, America started to celebrate the war in a series of epic re-creations."
It seems that even American historians sometimes forget the "Forgotten War." Loads of us who were around prior to 1960 don't regard the fifties as a decade of peace. The Korean War, 1950–53, demolishes any phony phrase about a "decade of peace."
Ms. Basinger's analysis of World War II films should also have taken into account how feelings about the Korean War may have influenced those films about World War II that were made in the following years and tied into the influence of the Vietnam War on combat films.
—Fred C. Smith
North Riverside, Ill.