The media greatly contributed to Titanic’s legendary status, and it’s especially true in the entertainment industry. No other ship has generated so many books, documentaries, and movies. New authors still emerge with fresh insights. The number of Titanic aficionados is still growing, and includes James Cameron, filmmaker by trade, who researched, produced, and directed the 1997 incarnation Titanic, the highest grossing movie to date.
Cameron’s was merely the latest in a series of movies that started with survivor Dorothy Gibson’s 20-minute reel from 1912. No copies are known to exist, but it was made. His film won eleven academy awards, including Best Picture. This reflects an unwavering interest in Titanic. Although most viewers weren’t concerned with details, they were curious and became inspired by the great ship and her story.
That said, these movies do not reflect complete accuracy. They are products that depict a filmmaker’s perspective or beliefs and to entertain. No movie made is factual to the detail but is more commercialized than anything else. Their purpose is to garner high numbers, in ratings and in dollars rather than teach history.
For example, the alleged suicide of First Officer Murdock and the Californian’s role in the tragedy. Several Titanic eyewitnesses recall hearing gunshots and seeing an officer slumped to the deck during the later hours during the ensuing chaos. A few individuals named First Officer Murdock, but it was not confirmed whether those individuals personally knew him. The limited lighting and excitement at that point in time leave questions as to the identity of the officer or if an officer shot himself at all.
Others theories even mention Chief Officer Wilde in connection with the event. No one knew for certain, but Murdock’s family never believed he would commit suicide. His body was never found. The argument that he felt guilty over the Titanic’s collision during his shift is compelling, but it doesn’t confirm anything. Everything here is conjecture, and so the depiction of Murdock’s suicide in both the 1996 TV miniseries, and Cameron’s film can only attest to the filmmakers’ respective beliefs.
The Californian’s role has created a continuous debate between those who believe this ship was within visual distance of the Titanic sinking and those, called Lordites, who insist it wasn’t. The Californian appeared in the “official” movie depiction, A Night to Remember, released in 1958, but it wasn’t featured in all, including Cameron’s.
Walter MacQuitty was a boy when he witnessed the Titanic’s launch in 1912. It inspired him to no end. He omitted such controversial issues, as that of the Californian’s potential involvement with the sinking. Most other movies also leave this account out for similar reasons. Although many people believe the Californian was there, no evidence exists to substantiate or refute the claim.
Stanley Lord’s ship log for that night shows a set of coordinates considerably far away from the Titanic. Yes, Titanic’s nighttime crew noticed a ship in the distance, but they could not determine its identity. Researchers remain objective and weigh all arguments evenly; they can’t form any definite assessment without compelling evidence.
Art is a wonderful thing, but the contrived drama and suspense for the art’s sake can’t serve as a viable source for fact when expressing fact is not the movie’s objective. The movies do add a visual depiction of the Titanic and her story, one that inspires us to imagine what it was like during her voyage and throughout her sinking. That’s the extent of how far research goes where movies are concerned.
The media has always sensationalized Titanic. But though the story warrants recognition, the hype serves to excite readers for the wrong reasons. We must remember that commercial publications are in the business to sell. People are drawn out of interest and intrigue, but they gain a superficial impression of the ship and her story. It’s usually based on little sensibility and more legend than reality so most of that credibility is minimized or even lost. The truth about Titanic is enough to give the real story strength. When that truth, whatever it might be, is approached with a sense of rationality and sensitivity, the legends stand up for what they really are and acquire their rightful place in the annals of serious research.