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Almost two decades after Titanic surged into movie theaters, director James Cameron still has a boatload of unanswered questions about the real-life wreck.
National Geographic’s documentary Titanic: 20 Years Later With James Cameron takes the director back to the crash site to dive deeper into the infamous sinking. Despite 20 years passing, the ship still has stories to tell, and Cameron feels a responsibility to both the living and dead to tell them. Armed with years of advances in technology and multiple experts to help him recreate certain aspects of the ship’s fatal voyage, the filmmaker finally connects dots that have been plaguing him for years — and concludes that despite getting one or two things wrong, he doesn’t have to remake his box office hit.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Titanic: 20 Years Later With James Cameron:
1. Dr. Robert Ballard discovering the Titanic’s wreck was just a cover story for a mission he was doing for the U.S. Navy.
Robert Ballard, one of the nation’s top oceanographers, is best known for discovering the Titanic: In the 1960s, the U.S. Navy lost two nuclear submarines under mysterious circumstances, and in the 1980s, Ballard was brought in to explore the wreck sites and find out if the Soviet Union had gotten there first. His mission was to document the wreckage, but that wound up taking less time than expected — leaving him 12 days to find the Titanic. He looked for its debris along the ocean bed and it led him to the ship’s wreckage. Despite following the debris because they thought it belonged to the Titanic, they didn’t know for sure until they saw the ship’s boiler. They then began celebrating their discovery until one crew member said, “She sinks in 20 minutes,” and they were embarrassed and devastated that they were dancing on someone’s grave. They stopped their ship, went out on the fantail, and held a memorial.
2. You won’t find skeletons at Titanic’s ruin site — but you will find shoes.
Bones dissolve into solution rapidly at that depth, so while explorers don’t find any bodies down there, they do find pairs of shoes; because they’re treated in tannic acid, shoes won’t disintegrate or be eaten by sea creatures.
3. The old couple that dies together in the movie is based on real people.
While making the movie, Cameron wanted to meet with the families of victims and survivors of the Titanic and hear their stories so as not to lose sight of the human tragedy of it all. One of the family members he met with was Paul Kurzman, the great-grandson of Isidor Straus and his wife Ida. As a first-class passenger, Ida — whose husband was a self-made millionaire and co-owner of Macy’s — got into a lifeboat and expected her husband to follow, but he said he wouldn’t enter one until all the women and children on board were on a boat. In turn, Ida told her husband they would be on the ship together as it went down and die as they had lived: together. That couple you see in their bed holding each other as water enters their cabin is based on those two.
4. Actions taken by wireless operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips saved hundreds of lives.
Cameron didn’t have time to get it into the film, but wireless operators were like the hackers of their day. The day before the ship hit the iceberg, they lost power in the Marconi wireless room. The instruction in the maintenance manual said that it was to be left alone in such circumstances and the operators should wait for an engineer on shore to fix it. In the meantime, they were to operate off an emergency coil, which is battery-powered and has hardly any range. The RMS Carpathia — the ship that arrived two hours after the Titanic sank to rescue survivors — was outside of that range when she started to pick up the Titanic’s distress call. If Bride and Phillips hadn’t disobeyed the rules and rebuilt the wireless set on their own, they wouldn’t have been able to talk to Carpathia — and over 700 people wouldn’t have been saved that night.
5. The movie might not have got the sinking quite right.
The film depicted what they thought was an accurate portrayal of the ship’s last hours; they believed it sank bow first, lifting the stern high in the air before its massive weight broke the vessel in two. Cameron and his crew brought in naval system engineers to examine all the variables and then did a physical test of the sinking, incorporating new information, to see if it sank the way they thought. While it’s hard to know exactly what happened due to the size of the vessel making for an unlimited amount of variables, the physical model they built allowed them to do a hydrodynamics study which showed the ship was likely at 20-30 degrees of tilt when it broke in half. Some scenarios showed the stern go down at a 90-degree angle, as it does in the film, but it can’t also have fallen back with a splash as it does in the movie. The film was therefore incorrect on one point or the other. Cameron believes that they were correct about the vertical stern sinking, since the bow of the wreck indicates that it swung down and broke off, dropping straight down. They were therefore half-right in the movie.
6. More lifeboats on board probably wouldn’t have saved more lives.
It’s a known fact that the Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats on board for even half of the passengers in an attempt to keep the deck from looking too cluttered. However, it seems that even if there were more boats, it might not actually have meant a higher survival rate: The crew only had an hour and a half to launch all the boats. Cameron and his team carried out exercises to figure out how long it would take to launch and load one lifeboat and it turns out it would take approximately 30 minutes and 30 seconds. Taking into consideration the number of crew members working simultaneously, it actually should’ve taken them two hours to launch the lifeboats available. The crew managed to launch 18 of the 20 in the hour and a half they had before the ship sank — they didn’t quite have enough time for the last two. So, even if there had been more boats on board, there wouldn’t have been time to launch them, and the extra space they would’ve taken up on the deck would’ve gotten in the way and cost more lives.
7. Cameron’s biggest storytelling regret since the film came out was his portrayal of some characters based on real people.
“Meeting people whose families were connected to the event really made me appreciate something that I don’t think I quite realized when I was making the film,” says Cameron. “Yes, I knew it was history, but I wasn’t as sensitive to the families.” Cameron took the liberty of having Lieutenant William McMaster Murdoch shoot a passenger and then shoot himself, and this portrayal of a Murdoch offended his family deeply. Cameron now believes he should have made that officer more of a generic character and not given him the name of a real person.
8. They toast the victims and survivors on every expedition.
When Cameron and his crew go out to the wreckage on an expedition, they go out on deck at 11:40 p.m. — the time the ship hit the iceberg — and raise a glass to toast the passengers and crew of the RMS Titanic.
9. The movie was meant to be a vessel for a teenage love story, but it ignited such an interest in Cameron that he was compelled to find out more and more through expeditions to the wreck.
Because of his continued interest that went way beyond a feature film, they’ve now made discoveries that have changed the history and understanding of the Titanic. “We will never know exactly what happened, but we can say what is possible to have happened,” says Cameron.