There are lots of ways Titanic (1997) interacts with history. While the movie has been both criticised and praised for its historical accuracy to the real disaster, when re-watching it recently, I was struck far more by its more thematic engagement with the study of history.
It started when I read this weird fan-theory about Titanic, which states that Jack never existed. Instead, he is a figment of Rose’s imagination created after a psychotic break aboard the Titanic. Now, while this theory doesn’t hold much water (pun sadly intended), since Jack interacts with numerous other people on board, the theory does highlight another point about Jack.
To the historical record, the fan-theory is right, Jack Dawson never existed and never died on the Titanic. At the beginning of the movie, Jack wins his ticket in a bet, and so his name never appears on the passenger list. He has no family, so no-one to report he is missing. Thus, to the records available to historians, it would be like he was never on the ship at all. The character Bodine even says it:
“There is no record of him at all.”
Instead, Jack only exists in the memory of others. We only know he was there through Rose’s story. In fact, Rose is one of the few people left to remember Jack at all. Most of the characters he encounters throughout the movie end up dying in the disaster, leaving only Rose, Molly and Cal who even know he existed. Since Cal kills himself in 1929 and Molly dies in 1932, Rose is left as the only one who remembers Jack.
Since Jack is one of our central characters and who we care for, his absence for the historical record is palpable. We are invested in his story, we care about what happens to him, even if history is less kind to his memory. This is where Titanic starts to intersect with real historical study. During the latter half of the twentieth century the study of history began to move more towards to study of those ‘invisible’ people like Jack.
To use Ancient History as an example, the subject became less focused on great men, like Julius Caesar, or major events, like the Civil Wars, and instead started to explore the lives and experiences of those ‘invisible’ groups. This included exploring the role and experiences of women in the classical world, e.g. Fantham and Foley’s Women in the Classical World (1994). We also began to explore the lives of Roman slaves and how they impacted on Roman culture, e.g. Hopkin’s Conquerors and Slaves (1981). This trend has continued, with scholarship exploring the ancient experiences of numerous other minority groups not usually represented. This approach to the study of Ancient History suffers from the same problems we have with Jack, i.e. little to no historical evidence for their experiences. Instead, we are forced to discover the stories of women and the lower classes through texts written by upper-class men. Just as we are forced to learn about Jack through Rose’s story.
The larger story of Titanic reflects this approach to history as it concentrates on the groups traditionally ‘invisible’ to historical enquiry. The story centres on the experiences of a women in 1912, trapped into an unwanted marriage and forced to accept her place, with much of the side plots also revolving around other women (Molly Brown and her new money, or Rose’s mother and her upper-class attitudes). The film also focuses on the experiences of the lower classes, highlighting their overlooked nature through the barred doors and restrained access to lifeboats.
When we compare Titanic to an earlier filmic version of the story, A Night to Remember (1958), we can see the distinct change in the approach to history from the 1950s to the 1990s. A Night to Remember focuses on the ‘great men’ of history, i.e. the male officers on the Titanic. The film focuses on Second Officer Charles Lightoller and the other officers attempts to save the passengers. This focus on the male perspective is reinforced by its male dominated cast list. The movie represents the old way of looking at history, i.e. through a predominantly male perspective at the factual events and key participants.
Titanic is instead focused on the women and lower classes and represents a shift away from this type of historical study. Titanic can even be said to directly attack A Night to Remember’s version of history, representing the male Titanic officers as negligent and self-interested – even taking a metaphorical gun to the head of one of Night’s important characters, Officer Murdoch. Although against the historical truth, it represents a discarding of this type of history. Most obvious is the demonisation of the upper-class male perspective through the character of Cal.
All these elements link together into what I see as one of the central themes of the film: the strive for a more empathic study of history. When we explore our own past we have to remember the lives, and lived experience, of those within that past. Rather than approaching historical study from a purely analytic perspective, we must remember the thoughts and feelings of those who lived it, and remember those groups that are historically underrepresented. All these ideas are expressed at the beginning of Titanic through the exchange between Rose and Bodine, where Rose sums it up perfectly:
“Thank you for that fine forensic analysis, Mr. Bodine. Of course, the experience of it was, somewhat different.”
And that’s what historians should strive towards: something different.
For more on the Titanic and its representations try Tim Bergfelder and Sarah Street’s Titanic in Myth and Memory: Representations in Visual and Literary Culture.
The study of ‘invisible’ Romans has come on a long way, a great start is Robert Knapp’s Invisible Romans.
Some more specific books about particular groups are Edith Hall and Richard Alston’s Reading Ancient Slavery, Craig Williams’ Roman Homosexuality, Benjamin Isaac’s The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity and Jennifer Neil’s Women in the Ancient World.
Amateur historian Dan Carlin talks about a similar problem of analytic vs. empathetic history in his first Hardcore History podcast on Genghis Kahn: Wrath of the Kahns I.
For Titanic (1997) have a look at James Cameron’s book on the movie and the more academic The Films of James Cameron: Critical Essays.