This time, the ship isn’t going down. Grossing $200 million in 25 days, Titanic is on course to become one of the biggest box office behemoths in history — thanks in part to repeat business. On one website, Countdown to Titanic, a contest is raging over who has seen the film the most. ”I’m getting ready to go see it tonight for the seventh time!” writes one fan, Peggy. ”So far, the second, fourth & sixth times affected me most.”
All of which has created a new generation of Titanic buffs, and many of them are leaving the theater scratching their heads. While James Cameron’s $200 million opus has been hyped as Hollywood’s most painstaking re-creation of the 1912 voyage, what’s fact and what’s fiction? Here are the questions keeping ”Titanatics” up at night.
WHICH OF THE FILM’S CHARACTERS ARE BASED ON REAL PEOPLE?
While the young lovers Jack and Rose (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) come from Cameron’s imagination, several supporting characters are drawn from history. Among them:
— The ship’s architect Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber). True to fact, he is seen contemplating his ship’s awful demise in the smoking room minutes before sinking. According to Titanic historian Don Lynch, a consultant on the film, Rose’s line ”Are you not going to make a try for [escaping], Mr. Andrews?” was actually spoken to him by a real passenger.
— Charles Joughin, the colorful, inebriated baker, who’s rightfully portrayed clinging to the stern’s railing until the last possible second. Although Jack warns of a vortex created by the ship’s sinking, the real Joughin survived without even getting his head wet.
— Bruce Ismay, the director of the White Star Line, which built the Titanic. As seen in the film, he did escape in a lifeboat, though afterward, he was shunned by press and public alike. ”Basically, people felt that he had an obligation to stay on board,” says Lynch. Ismay lost his job but — contrary to rumor — did not become a hermit, although those around him were forbidden to mention the Titanic. He died in 1937.
— Wealthy passenger Benjamin Guggenheim, who is accurately seen going down with the ship like a gentleman.
— John Jacob Astor, the richest passenger, and his 19-year-old wife, Madeleine.
— Nouveau riche Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), whose brave actions in a lifeboat are alluded to when she tries to go back and rescue drowning voyagers.
— The elder Rose (Gloria Stuart), in whose flashbacks the story is told. However, she’s based not on a Titanic survivor but on a well-known 104-year-old Ojai, Calif., potter, Beatrice Wood, whom Cameron met before he finished his script. ”He found someone of that age to see how healthy they would be,” says Lynch. ”He was blown away by how good she looked.” That’s why old Rose is seen molding clay on a wheel at the beginning of the movie.
HOW HISTORICALLY ACCURATE IS THE FILM AS A WHOLE?
Cameron’s attention to detail — including the set’s 90-percent-scale re-creation of the ocean liner and carpets made from original patterns — has by and large impressed historians. ”It was incredibly accurate, especially compared to previous films about the Titanic,” says Steven Biel, author of 1996’s Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster. Point-winning facts include the absence of binoculars in the crow’s nest and the panic that ensued when one lifeboat almost landed on another. Also, like the fictional Rose, one real-life passenger was rescued while drifting on a piece of paneling. One goof: Jack’s tale of ice fishing on Lake Wissota in Chippewa Falls, Wis., is an impossibility. The man-made lake wasn’t completed until 1917. And while many armchair critics point to the smoke belching from all four of the Titanic’s funnels as an inaccuracy — one smokestack was merely an outlet for the kitchen — Lynch defends the film’s portrayal. ”The stoves were coal stoves, so you had some smoke out of the fourth funnel,” he says.