Have you seen…”Titanic (1953)”


Tiger Media Network

Titanic-a-thon continues this week with the first film that has “Titanic” in the title. It’s “Titanic”. Specifically, the 1953 version. But first a little background.

In the years following the release of Atlantic, other films featuring the Titanic were made, which we’ll skip over. The first was a 1933 film titled “Cavalcade.” The film is a nostalgic look back on the first 30 years of the 20th century. The ship is only in one scene. This movie is also noticeable for being the only other film made about the Titanic that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ten years later, the Nazis made the version of Titanic. In fact, their film was the first one made about the disaster where the title of the movie is the same as the ship. The Nazis essentially took the story of the tragedy into a propaganda vehicle with a message of: “German Nationalism Good, Capitalism Bad.” It wasn’t a hit and has remained in obscurity ever since.

Ten years after that (I guess by some coincidence), 20th Century Fox decided to make their own version titled “Titanic.” Made as a starring vehicle for lead actor Clifton Webb, the film was released on April 16, 1953, just a day after the 40th anniversary of the disaster, and was a modest enough success. It later won two Oscars, one for Best Adapted Screenplay (which ironically, the 1997 Cameron version didn’t win that award) and for Best Art Direction. Also starring in the film were Barbara Stanwyck (who is considered to be one of the greatest actresses who’ve never won an Academy award, Robert Wagner (ironically, the Titanic disaster is only the second worst thing that involved him and a boat), and Audrey Dalton (who also starred in the 1957 movie “The Monster That Challenged the World, which we will discuss in our podcast “It Came From The DVD Collection” in the coming weeks).

The plot is as follows…

In April of 1912, Julia Sturges (played by Stanwyck) decides that she has had enough of her wealthy husband Richard (played by Webb), and decides to take her children to America. She hopes that this will dissuade them from living a wealthy and ignorant life like their father. Richard however, catches wind of them and rendezvous with them during the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Melodrama ensues, arguments are had, and secrets are revealed. When the ship begins sinking, Richard must rise above to save his family and others. Also included are sub-plots involving the Sturges’ daughter (played by Dalton) having a romance with a college frat boy (played by Wagner) and an alcoholic priest who has a redemption arc.

The first thing that should be mentioned is this film’s connection to the title subject. Yes, the film is set onboard the Titanic, but honestly, I feel like the Titanic is only secondary to the story (at least until the ship hits the iceberg). What I mean is the film doesn’t really remind you that the ship is the Titanic. We see some of the historical people like Captain Smith and the Astors, but they’re mostly relegated to the background. The word “Titanic” is only mentioned once or twice. And there are none of the usual themes present in the Titanic story, like the theme of hubris. 

There’s no mention of “Oh, the ship’s unsinkable” or “Oh, we’ll never need enough lifeboats for everybody on board.” The closest we really get is officers informing Captain Smith about the warnings from other ships about icebergs and him being nonchalant about it. The effect that this has, is that this story (with a rewriting of the climax) could’ve been set on any other ship. Like the Lusitania, the Empress of Ireland, or even a completely fictional ship. 

But on to the plot, which is good. Just good. There’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s basically a soap opera-type plot. You have romance, marital spouts, dramatic revelations, plot twists, and more. It works, but it isn’t anything you wouldn’t see in any other melodrama of the period.  There’s nothing in it that’s bad; it’s just good. There isn’t much else to say. The acting in the film is also of the same caliber. It’s good. I don’t think there’s anyone in the film that turns in a bad performance. They’re fine.

Where this movie shines, however, is the visuals. This movie looks really good and clean. It’s very nice to look at(even if you’re one of those who don’t like films in black and white). I watched it on DVD, and even in standard def, it looks good. I’d like to check it out on Blu-ray sometime. And I don’t know if this aspect gets any praise, but the Titanic model used in the film was probably the best model of the ship used until the James Cameron version. It’s incredibly well-detailed and generally accurate (except for the part where they had Southampton listed as the port of registry instead of Liverpool on the stern).

However, that accuracy didn’t translate to the rest of the film. The 1953 version has gotten substantial criticism over the years for how inaccurate it is to the real event. Here are just a few highlights:

  • None of the interior sets resemble any of the interior rooms of the Titanic
  • The ship is described as fully booked when, in actuality, it was only half-full
  • Key Titanic figures such as shipbuilder Thomas Andrews and White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay are absent (although in Ismay’s case, he’s replaced with a completely fictitious character who has almost nothing to do with the rest of the plot)
  • There was no bar on the Titanic
  • There was no tailor on the Titanic
  • During the sinking, there is an alarm going off constantly; there was no such thing on the Titanic
  • During the ship’s final moments, the remaining passengers and crew members onboard join the band to sing “Nearer My God To Thee” instead of panicking. I suspect that this was inspired by a similar scene in “Atlantic”.

I stated long ago in my review of the Britannic review, that it really shouldn’t matter if a film adheres to accuracy. But in this film’s case, it’s kind of odd considering that there’s a title card at the beginning that basically reads, “We researched the inquiries of 1912 to ensure accuracy.” But at the same time, if one looks past these and many other inaccuracies, the film is perfectly fine.

Also, I actually like the ending of the remaining passengers and crew singing “Nearer My God To Thee.” It’s different from the norm, and kind of thought-provoking. Plus, it ties into a personal theory regarding the Titanic and the resurgence of interest in it during the 1950s. By the early 1950s, the Titanic was, I don’t want to say forgotten, but it had definitely lost some relevancy in the wake of World War I, The Great Depression, and World War II. Then, this film and the book “A Night To Remember” came out. Suddenly, there was a resurgence of interest in the Titanic.

I believe that this was due to the Cold War. There was this fear of Nuclear Armageddon. People were afraid that war and death could come at any moment. This is why I believe that people started looking back to the Titanic. The Titanic disaster took place two years before World War I, an event that set the course for the rest of the 20th Century. The world of 1912 was very much far removed from the world of 1953. But when the Titanic sank, I reckoned that a good number of the people who were still on board knew that they were going to die in the icy waters. And I feel that, in some way, the people of the 1950s could relate to that. Thus, there was this big resurgence. 

Now, I don’t know if there really is a correlation between the Titanic and the Cold War, but I feel that most films made about the Titanic reflect the attitudes and feelings of the people who made them at the time. Certainly, the 1943 Nazi Titanic film (which we will not be reviewing) reflected the attitudes and beliefs that the Nazis carried. And, this is a bit of a hint for the next Titanic film we’ll review, but it certainly reflects Cold War themes. As for the 1953 Titanic film, if you look at it through this lens, you can see what the filmmakers may have been going for.

Anyway, overall, the 1953 Titanic is good. It’s got a good story, acting, questionable historical accuracy, really good cinematography, and perhaps an interesting discussion point. I don’t really have much else to say about it, but I will say that it wasn’t the only Titanic film made during the 1950s. There was also the 1958 film “A Night To Remember,” which was based on the 1955 book by the same name.