Looking at a century of “Titanic” on film

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet star in "Titanic"It’s one of the most celebrated disasters in history. It’s also the subject of one of the most successful films of all time. A century has passed since the RMS Titanic took its maiden voyage into history, and people still maintain a fascination for it. The wreck claimed a grisly toll of more than 1,500 lives and stirred a furious outcry that led to drastic revision of existing maritime laws, but in its day, the Titanic disaster grabbed the popular imagination as a symbol of humanity’s hubris, the failure of its faith in rapidly advancing innovation.

Over the decades, an element of romance for the Edwardian era of which Titanic was part began to creep in, and in 1997, the story of star-crossed lovers Jack and Rose, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, took center stage in what was then the top-grossing movie of all time, James Cameron’s Titanic. The film gets a 3D relaunch in theaters tonight, even as numerous specials ready to air and ABC prepares to launch the latest cinematic treatment of the RMS Titanic’s ill-fated voyage — in the form of the two-night miniseries Titanic starting April 14 from writer Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) — so it’s the perfect time to take stock of some of the film and television productions based on the ship’s fate that have come before. The approaches have ranged from earnestly somber to gleefully exploitive:

Titanic (1996) In the long run-up to Cameron’s highly anticipated blockbuster, CBS rushed out this two-part take on the tragedy. With an unlikely cast that included George C. Scott, Tim Curry, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Gallagher and a pre-fame Catherine Zeta-Jones, this attempted cash-in garnered respectable ratings for its first night, but sank with viewers on the second night under the weight of disappointing production values and rampant historical inaccuracies.

Raise the Titanic (1980) Clive Cussler’s best-selling thriller put the Titanic at the center of this Cold War story about an American effort to raise the doomed liner to recover a precious mineral vital to a newly developed strategic missile defense system. No matter how cool it must have been to see the ship bubble to the surface in 1980, when Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel discovered Titanic’s actual resting place in 1985 and determined that the ship had broken in two, the absolute last shred of plausibility of this film’s plot went right out the portal window.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) One of the more colorful characters to emerge from the Titanic sinking, Margaret “Molly” Brown survived the disaster and with famously independent spirit demanded of the crewman in charge of their lifeboat that they go back and look for survivors. The film, a musical starring Debbie Reynolds and based on the Broadway production, is more about Brown and her life than about the big boat going down, but it’s an example of the long-reaching impression the Titanic and its legend has had on the public.

A Night to Remember (1958) For decades, until it was overtaken by the spectacle of the 1997 film, A Night to Remember was the definitive telling of the Titanic’s sinking. Shown from the perspective of the most senior deck officer to have survived, it features most of the famed stories of both heroism and cowardice that have endured over the years in a straightforward presentation of the facts as they were understood at the time, without any interwoven fictional narrative.

Titanic (1953) Almost an inverse of Cameron’s film, this production stars Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as an unhappy couple whose questions regarding their marital troubles and “what’s going to happen to the children” suddenly get sharply focused and poignant answers when the liner they’re taking to America strikes an iceberg. A little on the “stiff upper lip” side, this Titanic features a seemingly impossibly young Robert Wagner, as well.

Titanic (1943) A far cry from the Celine Dion-soundtracked romance of Jack and Rose, this German film, released during World War II, was in part an anti-British propaganda effort. But Nazi minister of propaganda Josef Goebbels felt that the crowd panic scenes were likely too reminiscent of what the Germans were experiencing under duress of British bombardment, so it was only approved for release outside of Germany.

Titanic II (2010) Yes — really. In this not-surprisingly direct-to-video caper, someone has the spectacularly bad idea to launch a modern luxury liner, the Titanic II, on the 100th anniversary of the original ship’s maiden voyage. And of course, a bunch of people are foolish enough to step onboard. But, as will happen when people tempt fate, a tsunami hurtles an iceberg in the ship’s path. And of course, high jinks ensue.


Photo: © 1997 Paramount Pictures, Inc.