One hundred years ago, the sinking of the Titanic sent an electric shock wave through the Gilded Age of progress. People around the world are still fascinated by the disaster, seen as a parable of the human condition, inspiring countless books and a dozen movies. For better or worse, we learn about the past through historical epics which blend fact with fiction, mixing real figures with made-up characters like Jack and Rose in Titanic (1997). We’re left wondering. Which stories are true?
Even the excellent CBC documentary, Titanic: the Canadian Connection made mistakes. Crew member Emma Bliss is on a list of second-class passengers bound for Canada. Well, Mrs. Bliss arrived here eventually, settling in Toronto and living her final years in the Beach. She was a survivor, living to 93, almost as long as the fictional Rose, but she was hardly a pampered passenger. As a stewardess in first class, Mrs. Bliss catered to every whim of her wealthy guests. Like Rose, the ladies often needed a maid’s help to get in and out of their elaborate clothing. (Rose managed well enough when Jack was around!).
Each Titanic film reflects the attitudes of its era. In the 1953 Hollywood version Titanic, a couple is near the end of their relationship on a ship near the end of its life. Stewardess ‘Emma’ waits hand and foot on the fictional upper-class Sturges clan. The plot focuses on the drama of this family in crisis. The iceberg is the only villain. Even the snobbish father finds redemption. The message for a conservative America in the Atomic Age was that in times of trouble the issues that divide us are not important and we must hold fast to traditional values, such as courage and loyalty.
The truth is always a good story. The British docu-drama A Night to Remember (1958) is the most authentic of the Titanic films, depicting the events without fictional characters or subplots. For many survivors the realism was just too painful. A few months before her death in 1959, Emma Bliss was in the hospital and invited to watch a showing of the movie. She couldn’t help but cry at the painful memories the film evoked. Almost all of the stewards and three of the first-class stewardesses lost their lives.
A Night to Remember portrays the stiff-upper-lip British officers as gallant heroes saving noble aristocrats. A true-to-life scene shows yachtsman Major Arthur Peuchen climbing down ropes to help man lifeboat #6. His survival led to his undoing, branded a coward back in polite Toronto society for not being ‘gentleman’ enough to go down with the ship.
Lifeboat #6 must surely be the most famous in popular culture. In Titanic (1953), Mrs. Sturges is saved on this lifeboat, but her young son gives up his seat for a lady (in fact, #6 was lowered less than half-full.) In Titanic (1997), brash Molly Brown implores Rose to climb in, but Rose runs away. The real Margaret Brown was never called Molly in her lifetime. Her nickname was Maggie, but Molly sounded better in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Mrs. Brown and Major Peuchen argued with Quartermaster Robert Hichens who refused to go back to pick up people freezing to death in the icy water, saying, “It’s our lives now, not theirs.” It was Hichens who was at the wheel when the great ship hit the iceberg.
The silver screen echoes real events. Wealthy hockey player Quigg Baxter of Montreal smuggled his new girlfriend on board under an assumed name, a forbidden love across class divisions. Quigg introduced Belgian cabaret singer Berthe Mayne to his mother and sister at lifeboat #6. His last words were, “Look after her, au revoir.”
James Cameron’s epic Titanic (1997) is a star-crossed love story set onboard a ship run by incompetent officers and heartless aristocrats. In this romanticized account, steerage passenger Jack teaches privileged Rose to rebel and spit in the face of upper class vultures like Cal. Cameron gives a nod to his Ontario roots by naming the villain ‘Caledon Hockley’ and having Jack from Chippewa Falls (the director grew up in Chippawa, part of Niagara Falls.) A favourite ‘evil queen’ in movies is Lady Duff Gordon, the fashion designer ‘Lucille’, who spent her early childhood in Guelph as ordinary Lucy Sutherland.
One heart-breaking event was the loss of the Allison family as told in the recent miniseries Titanic (2012). Hud and Bess Allison were returning to Canada with 2-year-old Loraine, 11-month-old Trevor and an entourage of servants. In the confusion the nanny took Trevor to lifeboat #11 and both were saved. Holding Loraine, a frantic Mrs. Allison jumped out of boat 6 and refused to leave the ship without her baby boy. Loraine was the only first or second class child lost in the tragedy.
The British miniseries tells the story through the eyes of characters from the crew and the different social classes. An Italian waiter falls in love with an English stewardess who tries to help Bess Allison. An episode shows the real actress Dorothy Gibson, who would survive to make Saved from the Titanic, the first movie about the disaster, released within a month.
The true story of the Titanic is more compelling than anything Hollywood could invent. Behind every scene is a human face with a story to be told and a life to be remembered. And the band really did play on…
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