BY JOHN BILLINGER
In 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic was released, becoming the highest-grossing film up to that point, and introduced a new generation to the story of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It wasn’t the first film made about the Titanic, but it made the most significant impact out of all of them.
Ever since then, the Titanic has remained in popular consciousness. You’ll still find the Titanic being talked about in articles, magazines, documentaries, etc. So, let’s say it’s the year 2000, and you’re a writer trying to write a made-for-tv movie that cashes in on the success of the James Cameron film. How do you capitalize on a film about a romance set on a doomed ocean liner? Easy, you make a film about a romance set on the Titanic’s doomed sister ship, the Britannic.
The Britannic as it was originally intended, and the Britannic as it was in its brief service
Before we talk about the film, let’s have a little history lesson. The Titanic, arguably the most famous ship ever built, was the second ship in a trio of ships to be operated by the White Star Line called the Olympic class. The first ship in this trio was the RMS Olympic, which set sail in 1911, and was the only ship in the trio to actually have a successful career until it was scrapped in 1935.
The second was the Titanic, which set sail in 1912, and we all know what happened next… The third ship was the Britannic, which was barely under construction when the Titanic sank. The grand maiden voyage for the Britannic was set for mid-1915 but was interrupted by World War I.
The British Navy requisitioned the Britannic for use as a hospital ship to operate in the waters of the Mediterranean. On November 21, 1916, while sailing off the coast of Greece, the Britannic hit a mine and sank in one hour with the loss of 30 lives. For many years, the Britannic was a forgotten footnote in ocean liner history until the wreck was discovered in the 1970s and has since become a popular diving spot. With that bit of obscure history out of the way, let’s talk about the film.
Britannic takes place during the final voyage of the Britannic in November 1916. It’s about a British spy named Vera Campbell (who is also coincidentally a Titanic survivor) who is placed by the British Intelligence Agency on board the ship in the guise of a nanny for a traveling governess’s children. The British Intelligence Agency believes that there are going to be German spies onboard the ship.
Sure enough, there are German spies on the ship, being aided by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Germans discover that the ship is also being used to transport munitions (which a hospital ship is not supposed to do), and they plot to sink the ship. One of the German spies, Ernst Tillbach (operating under the guise of the ship’s chaplain), meets Vera, and they have a romance and are torn by their alliances.
Who will survive when the ship finally starts to sink?
I think it goes without saying that most of the film’s events never happened in real life. There were no spies on board the Britannic, the ship was never carrying munitions, the Britannic, in her all too brief service, never carried passengers (so there was definitely no traveling governess and her family onboard), and lastly, in the middle of the movie, there is a sequence where the Britannic is attacked by a German submarine (which was against the rules for a submarine to attack a hospital ship).
Even when the ship finally starts to sink, it bears almost no resemblance to what actually happened. They show the explosion that caused the sinking as happening so early in the morning the sun isn’t out, and when the ship finally sinks, it’s the break of dawn. In reality, the ship hit the mine at 8:12 in the morning and finally sank an hour later, so the sun was already out and about when the sinking took place.
It’s getting to be more of a trend recently to critique a film based on its historical accuracy. There’s actually a video on YouTube dedicated to this film, and it basically says that this film is terrible as it’s nothing like the real event. It covers every fact that this film got wrong, critiquing everything from the events of the sinking to the architecture of the ship’s interior. There’s plenty of debate about whether or not a film should adopt a historical event accurately or not, but I think in the case of this topic, you kind of need to stretch the facts in some way.
Sure there were no spies on the actual ship, but what would the film have been about if it didn’t include spies? You wouldn’t really have much of a plot. The Britannic was just a hospital ship. There was no drama onboard. There were just hospital personnel and the ship’s crew on board doing their duties. If the ship hadn’t hit the mine and sunk, there wouldn’t have been anything that would’ve made it stand out from the other hospital ships that served during World War I. So, I honestly don’t blame the filmmaker’s making stuff up and playing loose with the facts.
Whatever makes an interesting story.
The two romantic leads are portrayed by English actors Vera Ryan and Edward Atterton. Also featured in the film is character actor John Rhys-Davies, best known for playing Sallah in Indiana Jones and Gimli in The Lord of the Rings film.
With that said, the story that they came up with isn’t that interesting. It’s a romance set aboard a doomed ship. Where have I heard that before? Sure there’s the whole “they’re from different sides of the war” angle, but you kind of see where this is going to go. The leads are going to find out about their true alliances, they’re going to be torn between their feelings and their governments, and when the ship sinks, they’re going to do anything they can to save each other.
It’s predictable and the way they portray it is uninteresting.
The two lead actors act all stiff and stilted. It doesn’t seem natural. I suppose that they were trying to do their best with the material, but they couldn’t save it any more than the main characters could save the ship.
Left image: Looks a little computery. Middle image: The wheelhouse looks a little cramped. Right image: Just like that one disaster film whose name escapes me.
Most of the film’s special effects showing off the ship and its eventual sinking are CGI, and for a low budget made for a tv movie made in the early 2000s, it’s not bad. Some of it may look dated now, but back then, it was not bad. The film’s sets aren’t that great, but given the low budget, it’s alright. You can tell though they didn’t have a lot of sets to work with as they reused the same sets over and over, and they placed the ship’s radio room inside the wheelhouse. As stated earlier, the sets don’t always match up with their real counterparts, but given the low budget, what do you expect?
Overall, my thoughts on the film are short. There isn’t really anything memorable about the film to really keep you talking long. If it weren’t for the novelty that it’s set on the Titanic’s forgotten sister ship, most probably wouldn’t check it out. I’d say it’s a serviceable disaster-romance-spy film, but nothing more.
If you’re curious, check it out, but don’t expect much. Perhaps one day someone else will make another film set on the Britannic? Probably not, but at least it got some time in the spotlight thanks to this film. In any case, stay tuned for more weird films in the future…
If you have any films suggestions to torture me with, please email me here: email@example.com
Side note: There is an interesting trend on YouTube that originated with this film. If you search “Britannic” on YouTube, you’ll probably find that a bunch of people have used clips from this movie to create music videos, all set to the same song: “Sleeping Sun” by the Finnish metal band Nightwish. These videos have been highly successful in terms of views (one has 39 million views), and this has led to the song being known as the unofficial theme song of the Britannic.