Titanic anniversary: The best (and worst) of the films about the disaster

James Cameron with Kate Winslet at the premiere of 'Titanic 3D' in London. Picture: AP
James Cameron with Kate Winslet at the premiere of 'Titanic 3D' in London. Picture: AP
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Odd and macabre as it might sound, I’ve been a Titanic “fan” since childhood. I can’t pinpoint the moment my fascination began, or what triggered it, but equally, I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t massively curious about the amazingly opulent ship and its terrible fate.

When Robert Ballard discovered the wreck in 1985, I felt as excited as if they’d found a cure for obesity. And those first grainy pictures rendered me quite speechless. I bought the book, pored over its pages, and dreamed about going down to the wreck myself, or failing that, owning one of the artefacts dredged up. As I grew older, and suffered my own losses, my focus shifted away from the ship itself, and my empathy for the people on board grew. I was much more attuned to the tragic loss of life and how it has reverberated through successive generations.

When Jim Cameron’s Titanic arrived in cinemas I was there practically on opening night – and despised it from start to finish. The only redeeming feature was his ability to recreate the great ocean liner in every detail, possible because he’s a fellow obsessive who’d done his research thoroughly. I also admired the way he used dissolves to reanimate the wreck, thus creating the illusion that the ship was coming back to life. But that foolish story, and the wooden acting? Puhlease! By the allegedly poignant finale I was praying that Winslet would hold Di Caprio’s head under the water, or better still, he’d yank her off that raft and they’d drown together.

Over the past few months I’ve been gobbling up Titanic documentaries and films, though I abandoned Julian Fellowes’ “Drownton” after the first episode, on the basis that life really is too short. For similar reasons I skipped Nazi Secrets of the Titanic (or whatever it was called) on Channel 5.

I did sit through 1953’s Titanic, because I’m a rabid Barbara Stanwyck fan. The film also stars Clifton Webb playing her estranged husband, and a young Robert Wagner who, despite portraying a college boy of 1912, sports a 1950s quiff worthy of a rock and roller. Like Cameron’s film, it focuses on fictional characters enacting their own version of class warfare. Though it purports to be extremely accurate, it’s dry as dust. The actual sinking is over in seconds and occurs off screen. Nevertheless I wept when Webb and Stanwyck reconciled just before he decanted her into a lifeboat.

For my money the hands down best – ie. the most heartwrenching – film on the subject is A Night to Remember, made in 1958, and starring Kenneth More as Charles Lightoller. It’s intensely focused on the human element, and as a result, I’m guaranteed to start blubbing within minutes, and sometimes during the opening credits. One of the most poignant moments in cinematic history is when an elderly couple retires to a pair of deckchairs to await the end together (a scene much repeated but never bettered). I’m welling up thinking about it now, the picture vivid in my mind’s eye.

A Night to Remember regularly wins praise as the most accurate pre-Cameron Titanic film, and is based on an eponymous novel by Walter Lord. Most of the characters are based on actual passengers, and Lord did his homework. IMDB.com has this to say about the film: “As a footnote, many actual survivors of the Titanic were on set as the film was being made; and the musical pig in the lifeboat scenes was the actual one from the real disaster. In addition, the Titanic’s fourth officer Boxhall was a technical adviser to the production. And the film’s producer was there, as a small child, when the actual Titanic was launched in Belfast. This kind of authenticity makes this movie almost a living documentary. Intelligent, honest and compelling, A Night to Remember is at least one of the best historical films ever made, and is well worth anybody’s time. Everyone is bound to get something out of this movie; and indeed it is a powerhouse for anyone with an interest in the Titanic or just history in general. A totally underrated gem.”

I do owe Jim Cameron an apology, however. Of all the documentaries I’ve seen, his film for the Discovery channel, The Last Mysteries of the Titanic, is far and away the most breathtaking. Its cheesy American voice-overs are aggravating, but I advise you to push through the pain, and just watch the footage. Cameron’s been down to the wreck more than 30 times, and this documents his final trip, made about seven years ago. Using special cameras that he designed, he was able to explore into parts of the wreck that have never been seen before. It’s mind-blowing.

His camera snakes its way into a cabin where, sitting on the mantlepiece as if this was just another stately home, is a beautiful clock. The fireplace itself retains its ormolu mountings. In another cabin they find etched frosted glass windows unbroken and in their original position. His cameras snake their way through the kitchen store rooms, revealing stacks and stacks of plates and the purser’s desk. And they find their way into the Turkish baths – which no one’s seen since 1912 – revealing that their carved teak panels and vivid coloured tile murals are still there, and still beautiful.

Think about that. So much of the wreck is twisted and mangled. The pressure of the ocean at a depth of two and a half miles is intense. Yet a delicate clock, walls made of glass, and intricate gilt decorations remain in place, nearly as lovely as the day they were installed.

As his camera moves past a safe – and wouldn’t you like to know what’s inside? I know I do – Cameron reminds us that the Titanic is no longer a legend, but a real place, where real people died. For my money, we should count this powerful documentary as his ultimate homage to the great vessel and its passengers, and try to forget about that very silly film.