THE GLOBAL APPEAL OF TITANIC LIVE
The music James Horner composed in 1997 for the film Titanic is an inspirational phenomenon–there’s really nothing else quite like it in the whole corpus of film composition. Now, thanks to the marvel of ‘live’ orchestral performance synchronised with movie screenings, Titanic Live has embarked on a long career as an incredible cinematic experience with huge global appeal.
Of course, other film scores have been given the ‘live’ treatment in recent years, but the concept seems to work more successfully with Titanic than any other movie. It was obvious from the raucous cheering and applause during the April 2015 Royal Albert Hall show that Titanic is a film that resonates as strongly as ever. The golden rule when it comes to a hit ‘live’ cinema event is simple enough–not only must the music be exceptional, but the film has to stand up as a classic in every other department as well.
James Cameron’s Titanic was by no means the first film to relate the events surrounding the most intensely scrutinised maritime disaster of all time. Two films from the post-war period–Jean Negulesco’s Titanic (1953) and Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958) were both very successful in their day, but neither came remotely close to the astonishing commercial success of the Cameron film. So what makes Cameron’s Titanic so different from the earlier efforts dealing with the same theme?
The difference is largely down to perspective. The two earlier works were both conventional historical dramas set in 1912. Cameron in contrast deliberately placed his Titanic in the present day (the year 1996, when he completed his screenplay). Cameron was a creator of hugely successful screen blockbusters, but he had absolutely no form when it came to historical drama, having made his name with destructive aliens, robots and spies. But in considering the sinking of the Titanic he made one incisive deduction: in order to fully understand the calamity that befell the Titanic in 1912 it was essential to position the vessel in today’s world. To fully engage the public and ensure that the horror and tragedy of the whole event were truly comprehended, it was necessary to build a bridge in 1996 and bring the audience across it, back to 1912. The earlier films, simply recreating a moment in history, made no attempt to do this. Cameron on the other hand, by forging a truly compelling connection between the present and the past made a profound and indelible impression on just about anyone who went to see Titanic, and as a consequence the movie was propelled to a spectacular level of worldwide success that filmmakers of the 1950s could scarcely imagine.
So how exactly did Cameron achieve this remarkable feat? His grand plan–to take a defining episode from history and replant it in our own time–utilised two mechanisms. Firstly, due to the discovery of the wreck in 1985, the filmmaker had the physical remains of the vessel at his disposal. In fact, shooting for the project commenced in 1995 when Cameron visited the ship’s resting place on the ocean bed and obtained new footage of the ghostly vestiges of the Titanic. Secondly, Cameron came up with the idea of using an elderly female survivor to tell the story in her own words.
First-hand testimony obtained from eye witnesses is a central component of the historical record of the sinking. A procession of survivors made statements at two public inquiries in the immediate aftermath of the sinking–the US Senate hearings in New York and the Board of Trade Inquiry in London. This evidence is the foundation of much of what we know of the events surrounding the loss of the Titanic.
In 1955 Walter Lord, a Titanic enthusiast, caused a sensation when his forensic analysis of the sinking, A Night to Remember was published. Lord was familiar with witness statements made at the two official investigations, but in the course of his extraordinary research he virtually set up an inquiry of his own, interviewing more than sixty survivors, and writing an authoritative account of events that was quickly optioned for a film version.
A Night to Remember (the film), while an excellent drama with commendable historical accuracy, nevertheless fails to acknowledge the tireless effort Walter Lord put in to get at the truth of the matter, and the contribution made by the many witnesses he interviewed during the preparation of the book. James Cameron, in conceiving of a fresh treatment of the Titanic story in 1995, was determined not to make the same mistake. Forty years had elapsed since Lord published his account, and of course nearly all the people he met then had subsequently passed on. But it was still just about possible even at such a late date to speak with someone who had sailed on the Titanic. Second-class passenger Eva Hart had a detailed memory of the night, although only a young girl at the time. Eva passed away in early 1996, while Cameron worked on the screenplay of his new movie, but he knew that finding a witness to the sinking, someone not unlike Eva Hart, was fundamental to bringing the story to life.
The most important character in Cameron’s screenplay was the elderly fictional figure ‘Rose Calvert’, played in the film by Gloria Stuart. The value of ‘Rose’ as the key dramatic player cannot be overstated. The character is pivotal to Cameron’s unique take on the Titanic tragedy.
Cameron’s instincts as a screen dramatist told him that to really bring home the scale of it all to the cinema audience something more than a big-budget documentary-style overview was required. A vast number of passengers and crew were on board the liner when it struck the iceberg, but Cameron realised that the situation had to be personalised–everything that unfolded had to be seen through one person’s eyes. It doesn’t matter that ‘Rose Calvert’ was fictional–for the purposes of the film she represents and embodies all those who gave evidence at the American and British inquiries, and just as importantly, the many survivors recorded by Walter Lord in the 1950s when he gathered information for A Night to Remember.
Cameron’s thorough grasp of every conceivable angle of the Titanic story and his skill in priming his audience for what was about to happen are quite remarkable. When Brock Lovett the (fictional) leader of the diving expedition on board the Akademik Keldysh (the genuine Titanic exploration vessel) switches on his miniature tape machine and asks Rose to recall as much as she can of her time on board the Titanic, Cameron is paying a very sincere tribute to the heroic tenacity of Walter Lord some forty years earlier.
Just as importantly, at this precise point in the narrative Cameron effortlessly converts Brock and the other crew members of the Keldysh into part of the film’s audience, eagerly hanging onto and reacting to Rose’s recollections, while concurrently the actual cinema audience, doing precisely the same thing, is transported to the north Atlantic and given seats next to those on board the Keldysh. With both the on-screen salvage crew and off-screen viewers well and truly hooked, Cameron delivered an uncompromising exposition of the Titanic’s last hours they would never forget.
Although Cameron’s film is titled Titanic, at the end of the day its triumph at the box-office was not because it concerned a very large metal object that broke apart and sank in the middle of the ocean. It is at heart a film about people and the terrible agony they endured during a transatlantic voyage when things suddenly went wrong. More specifically, it is a film about one person–the fictional ‘Rose’. Indeed, the film could have just as easily been titled ‘Rose Dawson’ (the last words uttered on screen by actress Kate Winslet). The film’s narrative convincingly relates the metamorphosis of this character between boarding the ship at Southampton and finally landing at New York–Cal’s caterpillar transforming into Jack’s butterfly while the ship itself silently cuts its way through the Atlantic waves towards its own moment of truth.
The paradox of Cameron’s approach to this story, and his genius as a filmmaker, was his successful representation of the ‘big picture’ of the sinking of the Titanic and all it involved, while at the same time narrowing his focus to the predicament faced by a single individual. It took a huge amount of inventiveness and hard work as a writer, editor and director to maintain absolutely perfect balance over the three-hour running time of the final print, but Cameron followed his instincts from start to finish with dogged conviction, never doubting for a moment that his approach would be fully vindicated when the film was finally released.
The jaded cynicism of today’s world coupled with the additional separation of space and time imposes a barrier between the present and the past. Cameron’s mission in regard to the Titanic disaster was to break down the barrier. The cinema audience had to be moved from thinking of the tragedy as a remote abstraction and instead to feel as far as possible the shock and pain the world experienced when news of the loss broke on the day after the sinking.
Cameron’s touchstone in this regard is treasure hunter Brock Lovett (played with sympathetic likability by Bill Paxton). One of the functions of the character is to reflect the mind-set of the broader audience watching in the movie theatre. In his final scene, after listening to Rose’s account of the sinking and how she survived it, his erstwhile mercenary detachment, represented by his cigar, is thrown overboard. A changed man, he acknowledges that despite his preoccupation with recovering objects from the shell of the Titanic, it is only now that he finally understands what the wreck represents and is at last able to ‘let it in’.
Cameron was aware that if someone as hard-boiled as Brock could be touched by Rose’s testimony, guiding him away from sceptical indifference towards enlightened acceptance, then the general public was certain to follow. His judgement was perfectly sound in that regard. But what exactly is the ‘it’ that Brock belatedly confesses to letting in? For Cameron the ‘it’ was the truth of the Titanic as he saw it–the totality of loss and suffering incurred when the great ship foundered.
Of paramount importance to Cameron was the realisation that the 1500 or so souls who perished on the night were not the only victims of the sinking–most of the 705 survivors rescued by the ‘Carpathia’ must also be seen as victims. For many of the women who lived, survival came at the cost of the men they loved, and they continued as shattered and bereft shadows of themselves. Lives not claimed by the night were ruined by it.
Although Rose Calvert is a fictional survivor, the anguish of being parted forever from a loved one is indelibly stitched into the fabric of the Titanic legend. Her tale reflected the grim irony underlying the loading of the lifeboats on the night. The selective methodology adopted, particularly the ‘women and children only’ policy preferred by second officer Charles Lightoller (played with implacable zeal by Jonny Phillips) was well intended, but failed to take account of the consequences of such discrimination–consigning many of those in the boats to lifelong heartache and trauma. Cameron’s film, by giving voice to a survivor–albeit a fictional one–articulates this aspect of the Titanic legacy in very direct terms, in marked contrast with earlier films on the same subject. Striking an iceberg was bad enough, but the loading of lifeboats in a manner that forcibly separated loved ones and families, never to be reunited, only served to make matters worse. The loss of so many lives was horrific, but the real unfortunates were those greeted by daylight and the illusion that their ordeal had ended–for them there could be no absolution. This was the overwhelming ‘it’ that Brock finally lets in after hearing Rose’s memories of the catastrophe.
Before Titanic premiered, critics scoffed that Cameron had lost his reason and that the mounting production costs were sure to sink Fox studio. But he knew exactly what he was doing, and the general expectation that Titanic would turn out a massive flop was confounded when the film was released at the end of 1997.
Of course, a large measure of the film’s unprecedented success was due to the fact that in James Horner, James Cameron found the right composer to score the movie. It is well known the two had clashed bitterly during the production of Aliens a decade earlier and each had sworn never to work again with the other, so there must have been a lot of talking done to make renewed collaboration possible. We can be sure Horner grasped instantly that Cameron’s masterplan for putting the full impact and meaning of the Titanic disaster up on the big screen was ingenious, bold and revolutionary. Horner was at one with Cameron in realising that no one had ever seen anything like this before, and the composer played his part to the full by contributing his best work to date.
Putting all their artistic credibility on the line for the sake of such a high-risk cause was flirting with disaster in more ways than one, but both men were handsomely rewarded for their trouble. It is safe to say that the year 1998 belonged to James Cameron and James Horner. As Titanic made matchwood of box-office records and Sony Music could not press enough copies to meet demand for the soundtrack cd, the two men made an unlikely double-act as, for the time being at any rate, the world’s most successful filmmaker and recording artist. They hoovered up the awards, looking extremely pleased with all the acclaim, as they had every right to be. It is not simply the case that James Horner’s music is worthy of James Cameron’s film–the reverse is also true. Never were two such creative minds so perfectly aligned as on the production of Titanic. This is another reason why ‘Titanic Live’ is such an unforgettable experience.
Twenty years on, Titanic continues to thrill and inspire audiences through the medium of ‘live’ screenings. James Cameron made sure people around the world learned of and remembered all those caught up in an unexpected catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude. He tore down the barrier between our time and former time, as well as building a bridge between then and now. That bridge is still secure today, which is why Titanic remains a great film, and why it works so wonderfully well as a ‘live’ cinema experience. Of course, the unforgettable score composed by James Horner at his brilliant best takes centre stage during a Titanic Live performance, which is as it should be. But since 2015 Cameron’s crowning achievement, relaunched as Titanic Live, has taken on an added significance, becoming a perpetual reminder to all of the musical genius of his friend, the late James Horner.