Sunday, April 15, 2012


Yes, even I gave into the Titanic anniversary hype. I mean it's hard not to get caught up in it. Its the 100th anniversary of it's sinking and people are finally interested in something historical. But not everything we've learned this month about Titanic is true (except for everything at We all know that the Titanic is the most captivating maritime story ever, so of course there is going to be some embellishment and legends. The question now is, who is to blame for this? I think most of us would blame survivors, but what would they lie for? Perhaps some retelling of their recollections were affected by the sheer trauma and fear they faced in the North Atlantic, but they are not to blame. Hollywood is. That's right, movies are to blame for these legends. Therefore, we can place blame on James Cameron and every other director who produced a Titanic based film. How you may ask? Well there a several key examples which will prove the Titanic was not the mythical giant she is made out to be.

There are five major myths about the Titanic's maiden and only voyage. There are the more popular stories like the band playing "Nearer, My God, To Thee" as the ship went down. Other stories revolve around the idea that she was advertised as "unsinkable" and the conditions for steerage passengers. There are other less exciting myths such as the fate of Captain Smith and the discussion of whether Bruce Ismay really was a villain. We are going to tackle these myths and take them down one by one. So get ready to have your mind blown and never be able to watch Jack and Rose the same way again.

Captain E.J. Smith did what any respectable captain would do after crashing an ocean liner into an iceberg: he went down with the ship. But what happened during his final minutes. Smith shouldn't be viewed as a hero for just simply sinking to the bottom of the sea with Titanic. In reality Smith did nothing and may have actually doomed more people then necessary. Smith knew the lifeboats would not be able to save every passenger on Titanic but still let them leave half full. Also Smith was hesitant to issue the abandon ship order in fear of causing mass chaos, however in not doing so people felt no urgency and made the fatal decision to stay in their rooms. Finally, Smith was never seen after the ship began to sink. Most historians think Smith just lost it and couldn't accept his fate. Captain Smith was never seen amongst the crowd of people fleeing the ship and it is just assumed that he returned to the wheel house, bridge or his cabin to await his death.

Mr. Bruce J. Ismay was one son of a bitch, but not in the way he is portrayed in the films. Sure Isamy was a ruthless businessman but, come on, it was the early 20th century and being rich and powerful was all the rage. Aside from that Ismay was also a coward, as he abandoned ship in the place of women and children. However, there are several instances in which Ismay is portrayed as a bully and an over controlling puppet master of Titanic's captain and designer. In almost every Titanic film Ismay is seen ordering Captain Smith around, demanding the ship arrive early, scoffing at ice warnings, joking about the number of lifeboats and just being an all-around jerk. Nonetheless, this was not really the case. This negative personalization of him was based on the blame in which Ismay received after the ships sinking. In reality we should feel bad for Ismay and his legacy but I guess every story has to have a villain.

Sure, traveling in steerage was a nightmare but, really, conditions couldn't have been that bad...could they? Well for starters, what the average ticket would have cost in 1912 was roughly $35 USD and in today's money that about $432 USD. So as you can see, this wasn't a cheap trip and the accommodations, although minimal, were a luxury for those traveling in third class. Now aside from the living quarters there is one other myth promoted by Titanic films and that is the lack of an attempt to save third class passengers. Before debunking the myth we need to understand one thing first. Immigrants in third class were kept separate from others on the ship, but that is due to the United States' immigration laws. However, they did have the same accommodations as first and second class in some sense. It is estimated that about 530 third class passengers died that April night but not because White Star Line employees were locking doors and keep the unwanted masses below deck. It was due to the construction of Titanic's third class compartments. There were many hallways and staircases which basically formed a maze, so it was almost impossible to navigate in the confusion after hitting the iceberg. Remember the third class is mainly made up of people immigrating to the United States and do not understand the English written signs throughout Titanic. Another key factor in the low survival rate is the unwillingness of third class passengers to leave their bags behind. You have to figure these people had all their earthly possessions and weren't going anywhere without them. Even at the inquires there was no evidence that any foul play was involved or that third class passengers were held back until the first and second class passengers were safely off Titanic.

Oh, the the bravery of the band. Yes, facing their own deaths they chose to play on... or did they? In every Titanic film the band is seen playing "Nearer, My God, To Thee" as the ship slips under the waves of the Atlantic. However this is not necessarily true. Survivors attest the the band playing music on the deck as people were loaded into lifeboats, but the music being played was the popular music of the time. The band did play "Nearer, Thy God, To Thee" but the song was played much earlier in the night as the first few lifeboats had let go. The band was pushed into Titanic lore after A Night To Remember was release in 1958 portraying the selfless musicians playing until the very end. Now did the band play till the end? I doubt anyone will ever know for sure but one thing we can know is that "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was not their final song.

"So you say shes unsinkable?" Not really. This term describing the Titanic comes sometime after she sank. It was added to add more fuel to the fire of the Titanic legend. In fact the White Star Line never advertised the Titanic as "unsinkable," and any posters you've seen that say so are novelty items that were produced afterwards. But in the case of this myth, Hollywood followed in the footsteps of the media. In the film reels following the sinking of Titanic, the word "unsinkable" was just thrown around to add more excitement to the disaster. It is from those newsreels that the legend was born and added to every Titanic film every made.

So what can we learn from this? Well the most important lesson is that legend is sometimes more important then fact. The sinking of Titanic is the greatest maritime disaster ever, but add all these extras to it and it becomes a timeless story. Here we are 100 years later, there are no more survivors, no members of the Carpathia left and no one that can really recall anything that happened in the time following the Titanic sinking and we are still talking about Titanic. Sure there are historians and experts on the ship but no one to really say for sure what happened. Instead we are left with an interpretation and a romanticized version of the story. Since her sinking in 1912, there have been 14 major films that support these myths and then there are countless others that relate to the ship. The films started back in 1912 and go up until today. Directors and audiences around the world love a story with the Titanic's voyage as the background. Nonetheless, it never fails that in that background these myths always come to light. Historian Richard Howells sums up Titanic lore which is seen in films and shows saying, "History turned into myth within hours and certainly days of the sinking."

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