Historical Discussion Sinks Romanticized Interpretation of Titanic

By Aye Myat, Staff Writer 

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in James Cameron's Titanic (1997). 

Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) in James Cameron's Titanic (1997)

On the evening of November 1st, the History department hosted a viewing and discussion of James Cameron's Titanic and how well it has represented the history surrounding the event. As the lights dimmed and My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion began to play, the question of the historicity of movie came to mind.

Professor Feeley of the History department hosted and led the discussion throughout the film and discussed the historicity…or lack thereof. A few things regarding historical accuracy stand out:

  1. Despite it being one of the most romanticized events in contemporary history, prior to the film it was recognized as one of the worst workplace disasters in Anglo-American history.

  2. Leonardo Dicaprio’s character of Jack is the most ahistorical character in the film as his language and actions do not fall in line with his social status.

  3. Representation of the lower class is in the form of workers who appear as props rather than people, which contributes to the glory of the machine and workplace.

  4. Representation of immigrants and 3rd class passengers is in the form of festive and multicultural fun, but the realities of language and financial barriers are ignored.

  5. The reactions to the sinking are rarely discussed as it brought about regulation for radio, specifically the Radio Act of 1912.

  6. Rose as an independent, thinking woman who is critical of the elite and upper class represents the “new woman” archetype that appears at the turn of the 20th century.

Through understanding that film is a component of visual culture, historicity and representation become a part of the social memories it creates. This can be easily understood through examining the social memory of the Titanic sinking itself. Prior to the film, it was understood that the event was the most tragic of workplace disasters. According to scholar Gaylyn Studlar, what the film showcases is that “the distracting presence of of an unlikely cross-class romance 'causes' what is the twentieth century’s most famous--and controversial--maritime accident.” This reinterpretation, a historic half-truth, is the social memory tied to the film’s interpretation rather than the historical artifacts of the event. As Hollywood creates films of historical events, it is “an incarnation of a very classical Hollywood approach to the intersection of narrative and the cinematic possibilities of a visualization of history.”

This event brought to campus a conversation regarding romanticization and representation within films in a historical context. A film is a historical artifact that has the ability to portray ideals of love and romance, but at what cost must this be done? These types of historical film have the possibility of skewing the historical representation and social memories of the event. As there is no concrete answer as to be what should be done when portraying history in film, this discussion provided a platform of enlightenment. Going forward, one can only hope that these events continue and that the UoR student population becomes more engaged in social-history discussions.