Was looking at Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember (1958) again and thinking: this is so much better than James Cameron's version it isn't even funny.
Granted Cameron has access to more up-to-date data, and that Night does not include the latest scenario, of the Titanic breaking up before diving to the ocean deep--that's dependent on current knowledge, which changes all the time, almost every day. And, in fact, more recent evidence suggests that the sinking as depicted in Cameron's picture isn't as accurate as he likes to think it is.
What I remember best from Baker's film is what I think truly matters about the Titanic's story--that the true protagonist isn't the ship, or a pair of star-crossed teenagers, it's the society in all its levels and complexity, reacting as best it can, in its blinkered way, to implacable Nature.
It's the upper class passengers, noting in their clipped accents the various failures of the service in the face of general disaster; it's the smiling couple that bravely decides that, since he's not going, she shouldn't be either. It's the ship's crew doing the best they can, rightly or wrongly, smartly or stupidly, according to their particular gifts and circumstances--I'm thinking of Lightoller insisting that women and children board first; and later, of Lightoller organizing the men so that they can keep their precarious balance on an upside-down boat. I'm also thinking of the Chief Baker getting drunk as the ship sinks, and the Quartermaster insisting that their lifeboat not go back to rescue passengers struggling in the water--that they essentially leave those people there to die, screaming.
I'm thinking of a young man in steerage looking brightly back at the young girl looking at him, both sporting strange Eastern European accents (funny, if you closed your eyes while watching the film you can pretty much tell if you're on First Class or steerage from the accents); I'm thinking of third-class passengers rushing like a stampeding herd at the lifeboats, and earlier of the same people shut up behind accordion gates and told they had to wait while the boat sinks.
It's a complex, nuanced view of that society, warts and all, and a fine example of the intricacies of class obligation (not just from the genteel folk but from the ship's crew and even steerage), of acting out the dynamics of that obligation, in a world about ready to turn such obligations obsolete. Before World War I would set a match to the structure of traditional world society, the Titanic was already tilting complacency and smug assumptions forward, to send them crashing into the far end of the dining hall. As Michael Sragow points out in his excellent Criterion essay, Carol Reed tilted his camera to present a skewed vision of the world; Baker with giant hydraulic jacks tilted his world--his steel-plated, seagoing world--to achieve a similar effect, with the noted bonus that set as it was lifted by jacks groaned much in the way the actual ship groaned, audibly suffering from the undue stress.
The filmmakers of Night spent $1.68 million in 1958 dollars (roughly 9.37 million in 1997 dollars); Cameron spent $200 million 1997 dollars on his oversized bathtub movie--the last word in large-scale filmmaking at the time (if you don't account for Cameron's own follow-up, the 2009 Avatar ($237 million), Joseph Mankiewicz's 1963 Cleopatra ($44 million at the time of release, $300 million now) or Sergei Bondarchuk's 1967 War and Peace ($100 million at the time of release, $700 million today)). It's a lovingly detailed production, from the stained-glass ceiling on the forward Grand Staircase to the delicate bone-white china ordered exclusively for the ship; no expense was spared to make the props and sets as realistic, as impeccably and unquestionably authentic as possible (even the ship's sinking is based on the latest research, and on Cameron's own dives into the actual wreck).
Why oh why, with all that money and time and effort expended, did Cameron cook up a sticky love story between steerage-class Jack (Leonard DiCaprio) with his social-climbing aspirations and upper-class ninny Rose (Kate Winslet) with her suicidal tendencies? Why are all the first-class passengers arrogant, self-centered twits (Kathy Bates' Molly Brown being the sole and lonely exception) while everyone from third class is the salt o' the earth? Why is the putative villain of the picture, Billy Zane's Cal Hockley, such an irredeemable cad he's only a mustache-twirl away from being an upper-class cartoon (not a big fan of the upper classes, but watching this even I'm embarrassed for them)? Has anyone noticed that Cameron is often his own worst enemy when it comes to scripts or to characterizing the opposition, and that perhaps the single most halfway compelling antagonist he's created in his career is a half-robot with an Austrian accent?
It's a weird effect. Cameron takes you down Titanic's deck and your breath is taken away by the gleam of all that polished wood, the feathery brightness of all that white lace. Then Cal speaks in total earnest: "There's nothing I couldn't give you. There's nothing I'd deny you if you won't deny me. Open your heart to me, Rose."
That's when they love each other; when they fight it's worse. Rose: "I am not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I am your fiancée." Cal: "Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose. Is this in any way unclear?"
Oh, melodrama. It's a wonder that Billy Zane's jaw didn't fall off mouthing those lines, and that he didn't pick up the jaw and whack Cameron upside the head with it.
Of course, that's nothing compared to some of the dialogue the lovers have to mouth: "Where to, miss?" "To the stars. Put your hands on me, Jack." The older Rose, reflecting on Jack, has some of the worse lines: "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets. But now you all know there was a man named Jack Dawson, and that he saved me in every way that a person can be saved." That's superb writing in a '70s porno--more appropriate in one, too.
And--as a Filipina scriptwriter (a far better one than Cameron, in my opinion) has pointed out to me--just why did Jack Dawson sacrifice his noble self? So that Rose can live a basically selfish life, indulging in extreme sports (Cameron's a big fan), all fun and adventure all the time? When the treasure hunters who spent time and effort and money made it clear to her that they're looking for an oversized hunk of overpriced zirconium, does she tell them where it is? No--she was raised a spoiled brat with romantic notions on life, and many years later she's still spoiled, still a brat, still indulging her romantic notions on life.
Seems to me Cameron was missing something when he made this movie: a sense of proportion. I suspect he lost it years ago, during the filming of Aliens, and never found it since. A pity, because that's a crucial skill for an artist, the ability to stand back and realize when something's not enough or too much; without this, Cameron's basically a ringmaster, cobbling together spectacles for the consumption of the masses. Has he earned millions from his superproductions? I hope so; it's poor consolation for the fact that he's basically making junk, cheesy junk at that, but it'll do till he finally does something really significant.