To mark the 100th anniversary of the most infamous sea disaster of all time, director James Cameron has re-released his blockbuster film, Titanic, in 3-D (despite the added depth, Leonardo DiCaprio's performance is still flat). Amazingly, it has also been nearly a century since the first Titanic movie was made — a film followed over the decades by scores of Titanic retellings, each with a unique take on the tragedy.
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A memorable Titanic film doesn't have to be good to be great — it just needs to tap into that mysterious, nearly universal Titanic fascination that endures even after all this time. Why do we want to imagine ourselves on that tilting deck, or crowded into one of those lifeboats, or floating across the bow of Titanic's sunken hulk?
These five films explore five different ways of remembering Titanic, from the initial shock of contemporary audiences to fantastic attempts to revisit its watery decks. And beyond them you'll find five more films that further explore the perils of the sea, a realm of adventure that still inspires endless fascination. Or is it dread?
In Nacht Und Eis (1912) The iceberg that sank the Titanic hadn't even melted yet when this German film, Night and Ice, was released the following summer. Yes, the acting is typically overwrought, and the Titanic that hits an iceberg is clearly a not-very-scale model. But imagine the sensation of being in a theater in 1912 and witnessing a re-creation of the disaster of the century. Some of In Nacht Und Eis was filmed on an actual ship, and for his studio shots, director Mime Misu cleverly built the sets to bob and weave while his camera remained stationery, creating an uncanny sense of movement at sea. You can see the whole thing on YouTube.
A Night to Remember (1958) After 1912, the most important date in Titanic's history was 1955, when Walter Lord's intimately researched book, A Night to Remember, became a national bestseller. NBC produced a 1956 TV special based on the book, but it was this British theatrical production that, to many thoughtful moviegoers, more authentically brings the Titanic's tragic story to life. James Cameron's rococo megapic is flamboyantly cinematic with its nude paintings, fanciful necklaces and cross-class love story; and its technical aspects benefit from elaborate computer renderings and the relatively recent confirmation that Titanic broke in half before it sank. But in its stark black-and-white retelling and dogged determination to refrain from romanticizing the tragedy, A Night to Remember at times pulls off the impossible: We forget we're watching a movie. For 1958 audiences, this was the real thing.
Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) James Cameron stripped the goofy storyline from Titanic to create this superior documentary. He uses much of the special-effects footage from his dramatic film, but cleverly intercuts it with actual scenes of the wreck as it is today on the ocean floor. The combination is both eerily haunting and remarkably instructive: finally, those ghostly images of wrecked decks and twisted railings that we'd been seeing ever since Robert Ballard found Titanic in 1985 were given both structural and human context.
Raise the Titanic! (1980) It's easy to see why this sci-fi spectacular flopped (despite the exclamation mark in the title): The Cold War espionage plot moves slower than a glacier. But the breathtaking scene in which the wreck is brought to the surface using compressed air (at the time, it was mistakenly assumed Titanic was still in one piece) is worth the wait. The filmmakers used a detailed model of the ship, and the scenes where the salvage crew explores the ruined interior rooms are simply amazing. When Titanic is finally towed into New York Harbor, completing her voyage 68 years late, well, that's a hard scenario to beat. It's all based on a Clive Cussler novel — he hated the movie so much he refused for more than 20 years to sell any more of his books to Hollywood. When he did, the result, Sahara, was even worse.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) She's been portrayed by Kathy Bates, Cloris Leachman, Marilu Henner and Thelma Ritter — but the name that's become synonymous with Titanic's most famous survivor is Debbie Reynolds, Oscar-nominated for her turn in this musical by Meredith Wilson (She lost to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins). The Titanic scene lasts only a couple of minutes — but check out the chunks of ice skittering across the deck after the collision, a nice touch adopted by Cameron decades later. In the lifeboat, Molly attempts to lead everybody in song so aggressively it's surprising no one pitches her overboard.