Have You Seen… ‘Atlantic (1929)’


Tiger Media Network

This April marks the 112th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. Most people these days know more about the Titanic from the 1997 James Cameron film than from the actual disaster. But what these people probably don’t know is that James Cameron isn’t the only person to have made a film about it. There are enough Titanic films and media to fill the ocean. From actual films, TV miniseries, docudramas, lego stop motion videos, plays, horrible Italian animated films, even the Nazis made their own Titanic film. Last year in April, I reviewed the 1958 film “A Night To Remember,” but this year, I’m not messing around. We’re going to look at four films made about the Titanic throughout the month. It’s “Titanic-a-thon”…yeah, the title needs a little bit of work.

Believe it or not, the first film made about the Titanic was released only one month after the Titanic sank. On April 15th, 1912, the sinking of the Titanic made such big headlines, that only 29 days later, you could watch a movie about it. The film was called “Saved From The Titanic.” Keep in mind, that most films back then were 10 minutes long, so it’s not like it was a full production. It also starred actual Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson. Unfortunately, all known copies were destroyed in a fire a few years later, so it’s now a lost film. There were also two other films made in 1912 that were either about or featured the Titanic. The German film “In Nacht und Eis” and the French film “The Obsession”. Neither of these we’re going to cover, instead, we’ll look at “Atlantic.”

The film’s original poster

“Atlantic” was produced in 1929, and was not only the first full-length film made about the disaster, it was also the first film about the Titanic with sound. Well, technically it’s about the Titanic. The producers originally wanted it to be more clear that it was the Titanic, and the original title was Titanic. However, the White Star Line (the owners of the Titanic) threatened to sue the production team, so the ship in the movie was redubbed the Atlantic, and that also became the title. Nice that they either ignored (or completely forgot) that the name Atlantic was already the name of another White Star Liner that sank back in 1873, where the vast majority of people died, but I guess the wounds of that tragedy had healed.

As for the plot of Atlantic, there’s not really much to summarize. We mostly follow a group of passengers. One of them is cheating on his wife, then there’s this old couple, and then there’s this young couple. Then the ship hits an iceberg, and they all go through the drama of what they should do. That’s pretty much all I can glean from the film because it’s actually hard to understand what they’re saying.

The film has not aged well in both its craft and its content. It was one of the earliest sound films, and I can assume that it was probably not well preserved, so the sound deteriorated. So the dialogue is really hard to understand. I had to rewind a couple of times just to make out what they were saying, and even then, I had a hard time understanding it. But combine that with the awkward performances. 

A lot of acting in early talkies might come across as stagy or over the top, but that’s because they were just coming off of the silent films. But what really doesn’t do the actors here any favors is how the director instructed them to say their lines. The director, E.A. Dupont, was afraid that audiences would have a hard time understanding what they were saying if they spoke normally, so he had the actors speak their lines as slowly as possible, with long pauses in between. As a result, the drama they were trying to convey comes off as more comedic and awkward than what they were probably intending.

Most of the film is set in what appears to be the first-class lounge. The script came from a play called “The Berg,” so naturally, they wanted to do most of the action in the lounge where I presume the play is set. We do get scenes set in the Bridge, the Dining Room, the Boat Deck, and the Engine Room. These scenes were shot aboard the P&O Company ship RMS Mooltan, however, there are rumors which persist to this day that it was also shot on another ship. That ship is the White Star Liner RMS Majestic, which is questionable.

Almost the sole reason why people think it was shot aboard the Majestic is because there are a few scenes (really just long shots) that are set aboard a large staircase. This staircase is really close in appearance to the grand staircase that was aboard the Majestic. Now, since the White Star Line threatened to sue the production team, it’s doubtful that they would’ve allowed them to shoot on their flagship. However, supposing that this staircase in the film is a set, it would’ve been expensive to build. Perhaps too expensive for a film with a budget of $250,000. It’s also worth noting that the Majestic’s sister ships, Berengaria and Leviathan, were both owned by different companies (long story) and could’ve had similar staircases on board. So it’s possible they might’ve filmed the scenes on those. Given how poorly documented some of these film productions from that time were, it’s unlikely a conclusive answer will ever be found.

As for the film’s accuracy to the Titanic, it’s there but it’s definitely a bit removed. For example, possibly to avoid lawsuits, the names of the characters, such as the Captain, were changed. But they clearly wanted to be more contemporary rather than doing a period piece. The fashion in the movie resembles more of the Roaring Twenties than the pre-war Edwardian period you would’ve seen on the Titanic. The sets don’t even look like any of the areas that were on the Titanic.

As for the reenacted historical moments that we see, it’s a mixed bag of similar, done incorrectly, and in the case of one thing, horribly done. The big scene where the crew spots the iceberg, they attempt to turn the ship away, but they hit the berg on the side, and they close the watertight doors, on paper should only be a minute or two. But here, it lasts for about five minutes. It’s tedious. The general evacuation is pretty hectic. Everyone’s terrified to get on a lifeboat. The band is playing in an attempt to keep every claim. For the most part, it’s ok. You could probably show someone clips of it, and fool them into thinking it’s real footage of the Titanic’s evacuation. I even had a book as a kid that had pictures from this film in the chapter covering the sinking. There’s also a part where all the remaining passengers and crew get together and sing “Nearer My God To Thee.” In real life, only the band alone supposedly played this as their last song while everyone else was in a panic, but I guess they wanted it to be more poignant here. Plus, this is the first Titanic film to feature that song.

However, some very awful and dated imagery shows up in the middle of all of this. Before I discuss what it was, let me clarify that nothing that I’m about to describe here actually happened on the real Titanic. Now that we got that out of the way let’s continue. There is a scene where a group of men who are clearly supposed to be of African descent, storm one of the lifeboats, pushing passengers out of the boat in an attempt to save themselves, and an officer intervenes by shooting all of them.

The scene itself is about as tasteless and disgusting as it sounds. The fact that the people who were making this film thought that this was something that should be included in the film gives us an idea of their understanding of what happened on the Titanic. NOTHING like that happened. The sad thing is that there was a black passenger on the Titanic named Joseph Laroche who was traveling with his French wife and two children. Laroche died during the sinking while his family survived, and I hope that his surviving family never had to watch this.

Anyway, to end this review, “Atlantic” is not a good movie. It’s pretty bad. Nothing about it is engaging to the average viewer. At best, it’s a curiosity to anyone interested in the Titanic and wondering about the other film and media adaptations of the disaster, but otherwise, stay away. One last thing to mention is the ending. The film ends with a huddled group of passengers in the lounge, which is flooding rapidly. There is a priest (whom I guess is based on Father Thomas Byles) giving the last rites. The scene fades to black, you hear noise, and then it ends. Originally, there was supposed to be a shot featuring the ship sinking, but it was removed because they were afraid of the reaction it would get from Titanic survivors. On YouTube, you can find a video that claims to have “restored” the film by adding back the original scene, but it’s clearly an unused take of the ship sinking from the 1953 film.

However, perhaps an argument could be made that the fade to black and not seeing the ship sink to supposed to represent the POV that the people in the lifeboats would’ve had. It was dark that night and they wouldn’t have seen much of the final plunge, if at all. If that is the case, then this film provides us with a unique perspective. But more than likely, it’s still just a terrible film that really hasn’t aged well. YOU MAKE THE CALL!