This is an essay I wrote on the Titanic in a film class that I think might be one of the best things I've ever written on films: Titanic as the collision of two worlds
Titanic was a monumental blockbuster that shattered box office records in 1997 and 1998 and was hailed as a critical success. However, the picture has been forgotten and dismissed as a very lucky yet unremarkable blockbuster, in the wake of the overload of big-budget pictures that have come along in the last few summers and holiday seasons. Titanic, at 3 hours and 14 minutes, is really two pictures rolled into one. For the latter two hours, it is a disaster movie that marvels in special effects, tense situations, and showdowns heroes and villains who are defined by how they chose their fate in one of history’s most famous moments.
For the first hour and a half, however, Titanic is a story about the traditional rags-to-riches myth, as epitomized by the character of Jack Dawson. The rags-to-riches myth, coined by Horatio Alger in essays about Americana, is about the man who can rise to success from humble beginnings to gain wealth and ingenuity. Dawson, dressed in period blue-collar clothes, wins a ticket on board the Titanic in the most capitalist of ways: a combination of wit, luck, skill and a willingness to invest his money into a poker game. He demonstrates ingenuity in his ability to be act under pressure in the scene where he saves Rose’s life. In contrast, his nemesis Cal is unable to react with anything but anger, frustration, and even bouts of violence when he faces an unexpected turn of events. Also, Dawson and his friends in third class are a metaphor for the “melting pot” of America with different cultures converging together. Dawson’s traveling companion, Fabrizio, is a stereotypical Italian and they room with Germans. Another example is from the juxtaposition of scenes between the formal dinner in the stateroom and the party on the lower deck.
On the lower deck, the third class passengers are very active as they create their own eclectic brand of music and dance to it, while the dinner guests on the promenade are passive spectators to a string quartet.
The rags-to-riches myth embodied by Jack Dawson, is contrasted by the antiquated class-stratified society of Europe that the American dream was born out against, symbolized by characters like Rose’s mother and Cal. The film characterizes these people as being obsessed with appearances as well as being lazy and unwilling to work. Rose’s mother is a widow explains to her daughter that all they have are, “bad debts hidden by a good name,” and is desperate to marry her off because she doesn’t want to have to work as a seamstress.
Thus, she and her friends were always concerned with looking proper and maintaining appearances. For instance, Cal disapproves of Rose’s choice of art, maybe because he doesn’t like it but also out of defensiveness. Cal doesn’t want to empower any art or artists outside the accepted conventions, which he would have been doing by buying their work.
In fact, the concern of the rich to keep the poor out is symbolic of the Titanic itself. Besides, the obvious metaphor of the passengers being divided by class, there’s also the fact that Jack would have never been accepted onto the promenade without the help of Molly Brown, an insider, who gave him clothes (again, the theme of appearance resurfaces). The upheavel over Jack’s romance with Rose is because he’s seen as someone who threatens to infiltrate their world.
The Titanic is usually seen as a fascinating trinket in history regarding man’s overconfidence in technology and the power of nature to destroy something which man once thought was invincible. However, director James Cameron portrays Titanic as something more than a story about a shipwreck. To him, Titanic was an inevitable collision between those two worlds. The Titanic’s mistake wasn’t that the watchman didn’t spot the iceberg soon enough or even hitting the iceberg, for that matter, because the Titanic would not have been remembered nearly as well if everyone was evacuated to safety. The Titanic took aboard 3rd-class passengers, to maintain the illusion of a harmonious society but that illusion was exposed by the fact that they didn’t provide enough lifeboats for them and they perished which made bigger headlines than any of the Titanic’s accomplishments in engineering ever did.
This is all the more ironic when you consider that the ship’s designer explains in the film that they didn’t put enough lifeboats on board because he didn’t want to clutter up the deck, a most literal concern with appearances. Once the ship hits the iceberg, the drama plays out through images that echo this theme. One of the most emotionally moving images is of a string quartet playing to their deaths so that the rich will have something pleasant to listen to as they board their lifeboats is great. The primary concern, once again, was to keep life pleasant for the upper classes at the cost of the safety of the lower classes.
The Titanic was a ship bound for America and that is both literal and symbolic: that antiquated era of class lines would end soon, and the bright spot of the movie is that somehow Rose survives into that new era. The line in Celine Dion’s song “I feel you in my heart forever, my heart will go on,” suggests that it was through meeting Jack Dawson and absorbing his vision of what America is today that she was able to chose the right path (not with Cal who would later shoot himself) when she got off the boat.