Sunday, 15 April 2012

The 100th Anniversary of the Titanic Disaster

It was on 10 April 1912 that the RMS Titanic departed on its maiden's voyage from Southampton, Hampshire, England to New York City, New York, United States. At the time it was largest ship in operation. On board the ship were some of the most richest and most famous individuals in the world: businessman and inventor Colonel John Jacob Astor IV; American millionaire and philanthropist Margaret "Molly" Brown; Scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon; British fashion designer Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon; film actress Dorothy Gibson; American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim; J. Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line; Macy's co-owner Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida; and many others. Sadly, as history shows, the Titanic would not even survive its first voyage. It was 100 years ago today, on 15 April 1912, that the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Out of the 2223 people on board, 1,514 died.

Needless to say, given the magnitude of the disaster, the sinking of the Titanic was the biggest news story at the time. That having been said, in an era before radio was common place and television was yet to be invented, let alone communications satellites, the news of the disaster was much slower to spread than it was today. In fact, early on 15 April American newspapers were mistakenly reporting that the Titanic was being towed into New York City by the S. S. Virginian. It was later that day that the world at large learned that not had the Titanic been lost, but the majority of its passengers had died. Interest in the disaster was so intense that crowds of people actually gathered at the offices of the White Star Line, the British shipping company that had owned the Titanic, in London, Southampton, Belfast, New York City, Montreal, and its headquarters in Liverpool. A complete listing of survivors of the disaster would not be available until 17 April 1912. For the next several weeks news of the survivors' stories would fill the pages of newspapers and magazines worldwide.

Not surprisingly given the magnitude of the disaster, the sinking of the Titanic had an immediate impact on pop culture in the English speaking world and has maintained one ever since. Over the years there have been books, plays, films, songs, and even poetry inspired by the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, I rather suspect that it is safe to say that the Titanic has probably had a bigger impact on pop culture than any other ship ever built.

Given the outpouring of grief that naturally accompanied the sinking of the Titanic and the public's fascination with the ship and its survivors, it made an impression on popular culture almost immediately. In 1912 poetry was still a popular medium, so that perhaps the disaster's most immediate impact on pop culture was an outpouring of poetry commemorating the event. Much of this poetry was largely written by unknowns and much of it has since been, perhaps deservedly, forgotten. Well established poets would and did write about the disaster. Thomas Hardy wrote an eleven stanza poem entitled "The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic)." Harriet Monroe wrote a shorter poem entitled "Titanic Requiem." Both Mr. Hardy and Miss Monroe's poems were published in 1912, but many poems would be published years later. E. J. Pratt's "The Titanic" was published in 1935.

Aside from poems, another immediate impact that the Titanic disaster would have on popular culture would be through songs. In John Wilson Foster's book The Titanic Complex, folklorist D. K. Wilgus was quoted as saying that the Titanic provoked "...what seems to be the largest number of songs concerning any disaster, perhaps any event in American history." In the years 1912-1913 in the United States alone over 100 songs were written about the disaster. The types of songs written about the Titanic were of a large variety, ranging from songs that were mere commercial exploitation of the disaster to love songs to outright religious hymns. One of the earliest and best known songs was the folk song "The Titanic (also known as ""It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down"). While its author remains unknown, the song has been dated to around 1915 or 1916.

The sinking of the Titanic would inspire a surprisingly large number of blues songs. In 1927 Rabbit Brown recorded the popular "Sinking of the Titanic." In 1929 Blind Willie Johnson recorded "God Moves on the Water." In 1948 Leadbelly released "The Titanic (Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well)." The Titanic would also provide inspiration for performers what might be called country music, but in some cases which  may be better described as "old time music" or "hillbilly music." Ernest Stoneman recorded "The Titanic" in 1924. In 1927 Frank Hutchinson recorded "The Last Scene of the Titanic." In 1938 The Dixon Brothers recorded "Down With the Old Canoe."

While the sinking of the Titanic would have an impact on folk, blues, and old time music, it has not had as a large an impact on rock music and other later forms of popular music. Seventies Norwegian rock band Titanic took their name from the ship. The song "Little Titanic" by alternative hip hop band Why? takes its inspiration from the disaster, as does "The Titanic (Let It Burn)" by blues and folk performer Ruthie Foster.

While poems and songs based around the Titanic disaster appeared almost immediately, it would take some time before plays based on the disaster would be mounted. Ernest Raymond's The Berg: A Play (1929) is set on a thinly disguised version of the Titanic. Noel Coward's Cavalcade (1931) would include a final scene aboard the ship. Perhaps the best known play based on the Titanic disaster was the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), which centred upon Margaret Brown, the American millionaire who worked to save many of the lives of those aboard the Titanic.

Of course, perhaps no other medium has produced better known works based on the sinking of the Titanic than film. It was only 29 days after the Titanic disaster that the first film based upon it appeared. "Saved From the Titanic" starred and was co-written by Dorothy Gibson, the silent actress who had actually been aboard the ship. The 10 minute film was loosely based on her actual rescue from the sinking vessel. While much of the account was fictionalised, Miss Gibson did wear the same clothing she had been wearing when she was saved. Sadly, the film was lost long ago in a fire in March 1914. The German film "In Nacht und Eis" was also based on the Titanic disaster and released in 1912. It too is believed lost.

Based on the play The Berg: A Play, the 1929 feature film Atlantic was also loosely based on the voyage of the Titanic. It is essentially a romance set aboard what is clearly a fictionalised version of the Titanic (the Atlantic). In 1943 Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned a propaganda film based on the disaster. Titanic (1943) was essentially Nazi propaganda that sought to discredit British and American businessmen while at the same time glorifying the bravery of German men. Needless to say, the film was not particularly historically accurate! This would also be true of another film entitled Titanic, released in 1953 by 20th Century Fox and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Although a well done film, its primary concern is the relationship between an estranged couple, with the Titanic serving merely as a historic backdrop.

What may be the greatest film ever made based on the sinking of the Titanic was A Night to Remember, released in 1958. The film was a result of producer William McQuitty's fascination with the Titanic--who had actually witnessed the launch of the ship when he was a lad. The movie was based on the book A Night to Remember (1955) by William Lord, a non-fiction work still regarded as one of the best sources of information on the Titanic disaster. A good deal of research went into the making the film, so that very few historical inaccuracies appear in the film (the christening of the Titanic is one--the ship was never christened). To this day A Night to Remember is still regarded by many as the greatest film about the disaster.


In 1964 there would be a film adaptation of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Like the musical, the movie was a highly fictionalised account of Margaret Brown's life up to and including her time aboard the Titanic. Raise the Titanic from 1980 was not about the sinking of the Titanic, but took inspiration from it nonetheless. Based on a book of the same name by Clive Cussler, the movie portrays a group of Americans who seek to salvage the wreck of the ship. The 1981 film Time Bandits, which involved time travel, included a sequence set aboard the Titanic. What may be the most famous film based on the sinking of the Titanic is Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron. Titanic is perhaps best regarded as a cross between Titanic (1953) and A Night to Remember (1958). While a wealth of historical detail is portrayed to the look and operations of the ship, the movie itself centred around a fictional romance between a young, poor artist and a wealthy young woman. Among the movie's historical inaccuracies are some of the portrayals of the historical figures who were aboard the ship. Titanic would become the highest grossing film of all time before being adjusted for inflation (after being adjusting for inflation the highest grossing film is still Gone With the Wind), a position it held before being surpassed by Avatar  in 2010.

Perhaps because of the sheer cost in mounting such productions, television has dealt less with the Titanic disaster than film. The very first episode of the television series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) was set aboard the Titanic. The episode found the lead characters, who travel through time in each episode, aboard the Titanic and attempting to prevent the disaster (never mind this would have dramatically changed history). In 1979 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired a television movie titled S.O.S. Titanic. Unlike many version of the disaster, S.O.S. Titanic was for the most part historically accurate, with only a few inaccuracies being portrayed.  Nineteen ninety six would see two television movies, both of which were rife with historical inaccuracies. Titanic aired on the American network CBS. No Greater Love (based on a Danielle Steel novel) was not about the disaster itself, but used the disaster as the catalyst for a plot about a young woman who must raised her younger siblings after their parents died in the sinking of the Titanic.

The 2007 Christmas special of the long running television programme Doctor Who took inspiration from the Titanic disaster. The episode finds The Doctor aboard an alien spaceship named for and modelled after the historic Earth vessel. Unfortunately, this space bound Titanic also meets with disaster. Given that 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the disaster, it should come as no surprise that there would be two television serials based upon it. Titanic is a four part serial from the creator of Downton Abbey, Lord Julian Fellowes. The serial debuted on ITV on 25 March 2012 in the United Kingdom, 21 March 2012 on Global in Canada, and on 14 April 2012 on ABC in the United States. Titanic: Blood and Steel is a 12 part serial that has not yet aired in the United Kingdom or the United States.

Here I must point out that this article is by no means includes every poem, song, play, movie or television programme inspired by the sinking of the Titanic. Indeed, I have not even touched upon books at all. The fact is that the Titanic disaster has had such a extensive impact on pop culture in the English speaking world that it would take an entire book to even detail  a single aspect of it. Indeed, books have been written on the poetry and songs inspired by the sinking of the Titanic alone.

Of course, the question some might ask is why the Titanic disaster still maintains such a grip upon the imagination 100 years after it took place. The most obvious reason is the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. The death toll of the sinking of the Titanic matched that of many natural disasters. While the sinking of the Titanic was not the deadliest maritime disaster even at the time (I believe that would have been the sinking of the S. S. Sultana in 1865, in which 1800 people died), it was definitely one of the deadliest. When combined with the publicity surrounding the ship's maiden voyage, it should then not be surprising that to this day people would be fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic.

That having been said, it is not simply the sheer magnitude of the Titanic disaster that attracts filmmakers, television producers, and writers to the sinking of the great ship. The disaster itself provides for a good deal of drama, with tales of heroism and tragedy, but then one must consider that even if the Titanic had not sunk there would hold possibilities for dramatic interpretation. Not only was the Titanic the largest ship of its time, but it was also one on which the various classes intermingled. Individuals from the very rich and very powerful were on board the same ship as those who were very nearly paupers. The sheer variety of individuals aboard the Titanic has probably always made it attractive to artists in every medium.

Indeed, the Titanic has been used as a springboard for exploring various themes. One of the earliest to be explored was the hubris of mankind with regards to technology. To a degree the Titanic became a symbol of man's arrogance in the superiority of technology over nature, with nature winning in the end. The Titanic disaster has also been used as a condemnation of class differences, with several different books, movies, and television programmes emphasising the divisions in the classes at the time. Even when filmmakers, writers, and television producers are exploring other themes, the element of tragedy is almost always present in portrayals of the Titanic disaster. If romance has always played a large role in portrayals of the sinking of the Titanic, it is perhaps because it brings home the sheer momentousness of the catastrophe.

Of course, much of the appeal of portrayals of the Titanic disaster for modern readers and viewers may well be the sheer heroism of many of those involved. In many ways, this could be summed up by the words of Benjamin Guggenheim, who said, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." He later gave a survivor a message to give to his wife, "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward." Today it is hard to picture any millionaire willingly dying aboard a sinking ship--they would more likely push women and children out of the way to get to the lifeboats! Macy's co-owner Isidor Strauss also displayed similar bravery. He refused to board the lifeboats so that younger men could do so and sent his wife's maid aboard the boat. His wife Ida refused to board the lifeboat as well, stating, "I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together." Margaret "Molly" Brown helped others board the lifeboats until she was persuaded to leave the ship on Lifeboat No. 6. Even then she insisted that Lifeboat No. 6 return to search for survivors, against the judgement of Quartermaster Robert Hichens. The Titanic disaster was the setting for acts of heroism and a sense of noblesse oblige that is sometimes had to see taking place today.

Although it was not even the largest maritime disaster at the time, the sinking of the Titanic was a disaster of such greatness that it has held the public imagination ever since. As early as 1912 it had already become part of the collective unconscious of the English speaking world. The enormous loss of life in the tragedy will always evoke a sense of sorrow on the part of individuals. The many acts of heroism as the disaster unfolded will continue to inspire people. It is safe to say that the most famous shipwreck in history will continue to have a huge impact on pop culture in the English speaking world.

No comments: