“For me, the mysteries [of Titanic] have never died.”
So says filmmaker James Cameron during the opening of his new National Geographic Channel special about the legendary, doomed ship. Ever since the “unsinkable” RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic during its maiden voyage and sank to the bottom of the sea 100 years ago this month — on April 14, 1912 — people have been fascinated with its tale, a mix of human tragedy, engineering marvel and hubris. Of the 2,223 people onboard, 1,517 lost their lives in the sinking. And while the ship had the ability to carry up to 64 wooden lifeboats, which would have been enough for 4,000 people, the White Star Line, which owned the ship, decided it would only carry 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles.
For the first 73 years after the disaster, one of the most haunting questions was “Where is Titanic?” That mystery was solved in 1985 by oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard and his team, who finally discovered the wreck. In the years since that discovery, other questions and unforeseen concerns have arisen.
Some of these are tackled in two new NGC specials premiering this anniversary month. The specials feature two key personalities who are probably most responsible for bringing, and keeping, Titanic in people’s consciousness over the last 30 years: the aforementioned Cameron and Ballard. Ballard, obviously, for discovering the ship and being its advocate right from the start (being classy enough not to take anything from the wreck even though, by the law of the sea, he could have claimed it as his own property); and Cameron, of course, through his Oscar-winning and box-office-record-breaking 1997 film Titanic, for introducing the ship and its story to a passionate new generation (the film was re-released in theaters Wednesday, in 3D).
The two specials take intriguingly different tacks. Cameron’s special, Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron, offers a fascinating “cold case” forensic investigation of the Titanic disaster. While Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard also touches on engineering elements of the ship (you just can’t get away from that aspect of Titanic), there also is a quiet humanity apparent here as Ballard recalls those lost aboard the ship. The horrific death toll can sometimes be forgotten — or it can be kept at an emotional distance — regarding an event that happened so long ago and which many are familiar with only from a popular movie, and Ballard’s special does a good job in reminding us of those lost in the tragedy.
“I Could Walk The Ship In My Sleep”
“I wanted to dive the wreck more than I wanted to make the movie,” James Cameron tells us at the start of his special, Titanic: The Final Word With James Cameron, which premieres April 8 at 8pm ET/PT. “Diving the wreck was my way into the story.”
Cameron, who recently also made an amazing, record dive into the Mariana Trench, has now been on more than 30 dives to Titanic. Between that, and working on the incredible set of the ship for his megahit film, he says it is “ingrained in my memory. I could walk the ship in my sleep.”
Yet he, like so many others, has remained haunted by mysteries of just what happened late on the evening of April 14, 1912. How exactly did the ship break up? Why is one section of the ship so far away from the rest of the wreck? How long did the lights really stay on? What could the ship’s crew have done to save more passengers?
“Titanic is like a fractal,” Cameron goes on. “The closer you get to it, the more you see completely new patterns.”
In The Final Word, Cameron gathers with a team of other experts, including engineers, naval architects, artists, archaeological forensics experts and historians, to look at these patterns and hopefully come away with a definitive answer.
“It’s time to just say, ‘This is what really happened, to the best of our collective knowledge,’” says Cameron.
Over the course of the two-hour special, this knowledge will be on display, and discussed and argued, as the various authorities gather on a massive soundstage in the shadow of a 42-foot replica of Titanic and other props from Cameron’s blockbuster movie.
“It’s like a murder mystery case,” says Cameron, “where some piece of evidence is an outlier. Everything fits perfectly, but there’s one outlying piece of evidence that seems so trivial, and yet it unwinds everything else. … The whole process that we’re going through here is working backwards from what we find on the bottom to what happened at the surface.”
Using a never-before-seen stress model and forensic evidence, the group does make a shocking discovery — did the ship reach its breaking point before it was completely vertical? Animation created under Cameron’s supervision by the company that executed the image capture for his film Avatar provides an accurate picture of how the ship broke apart and why its remains are scattered.
Plenty more questions will be looked at, too, as Cameron assures us that the experts “will not leave the room until we have some legitimate conclusions that can withstand the test of time.”
Given Cameron’s reputation for perfectionism, he probably wasn’t exaggerating, either. Those guys might still be in that room.
“I Continue To Immerse Myself In The Souls Of The Ship”
Considering that Bob Ballard is the one who discovered the resting place of Titanic, it’s probably no surprise that he feels protective about it, acting as its defender to save it from further dangers beyond the tragedy that has already befallen it. But that fact might have surprised him years ago, had you told him that when he was first looking for the wreck.
“When I first got interested in the Titanic as a scientist, as an explorer, it was very clinical,” he says. “I had no emotions attached to the Titanic, but that changed on its discovery. … When I went down there, it spoke to me. … Then when I came home and began meeting the survivors — I hadn’t met the survivors before I found the Titanic — but after I met the survivors, and I began to hear their story, I got their view of it.”
In Save the Titanic With Bob Ballard, premiering April 9 at 10pm ET/PT, we follow Ballard as he traces the ship’s journey from its construction in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to its fateful end. And it’s a journey that continues the personal explorations Ballard began uncovering after his discovery.
“It’s the story of the people,” he says. “For me, it wasn’t the ship. It was the story of the people, and that’s very much what our show is about. I continue to immerse myself in the souls of the ship.”
The particular people who Ballard focuses on in this special are the Guarantee Group — the nine men who helped build Titanic with their own hands, and who were selected to sail on her fateful maiden voyage. The group was led by the ship’s architect, Thomas Andrews, who was seen passing out life jackets and encouraging others to evacuate before last being spotted in the first-class smoking room. Other Guarantee Group members were last seen in the ship’s engine room, fighting to keep lights on so more passengers could evacuate the ship. Their bodies were never found, and no evidence exists to suggest that they even attempted to escape.
While these men could not save Titanic during its original time of crisis, Ballard hopes to save it during what he believes is its increasing time of peril today — from looters and the tourist-submarine industry.
“The Titanic is a deep-sea museum with the doors wide open,” Ballard says in the special.
Some of the technology once available only to scientists like Ballard can now, if you have the money, be acquired by private individuals. If those individuals are less than scrupulous, little would stop them from entering Titanic and taking what they want. No international agreements are currently in place to protect the ship (although it was announced in recent days that the wreck now falls under the protection of UNESCO), and its location in the middle of the North Atlantic makes it practically impossible to police.
As the special points out in a visit to an auction house, there is a very large market for Titanic merchandise, and a high incentive for profit-minded folks to want to raid the ship.
Aside from the historical significance of preserving the ship, Ballard’s journey in the special also points out the personal importance. He meets with several descendants of the Guarantee Group, who all echo Ballard’s sentiments that Titanic is a graveyard, and should be honored and protected as such. And Ballard thinks it can be protected. In the special, he touches on a way that the site can be electronically monitored. But it has to be done soon.
“Titanic’s at greater peril now than ever before,” he cautions in the program. “If [it] is not protected, it’ll get stripped until all the jewels have been taken off the old lady’s body.”
Titanic: The Final Word — Credit Stewart Volland/NGC
Save the Titanic — © NGT/Christopher Wohlers