"It may not be true that 'the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,' as one historian has put it, but it's not much of an exaggeration," writes Daniel Mendelsohn in this week's New Yorker. "Since the early morning of April 15, 1912, when the great liner went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with it five grand pianos, eight thousand dinner forks, an automobile, a fifty-line telephone switchboard, twenty-nine boilers, a jeweled copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, and more than fifteen hundred lives, the writing hasn't stopped."
What follows is an epic and irresistibly readable survey of 100 years' worth of Titanic lore. The disaster immediately inspired a "glut" of poems, "more than a hundred songs," countless histories, novels and plays and, of course, innumerable films, both narrative and documentary:
A scant month after the sinking, a one-reel movie called Saved from the Titanic was released, featuring Dorothy Gibson, an actress who had been a passenger in first class. It established a formula — a love story wrapped around the real-life catastrophe — that has resurfaced again and again, notably in a 1953 tearjerker starring Barbara Stanwyck and in James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, which, when it was released, was both the most expensive and the highest-grossing film of all time. (The film was rereleased last week, after an eighteen-million-dollar conversion to 3D.) There have been a host of television treatments. The most recent is a four-part miniseries, to première this weekend, by Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey. And that's just the English-language output: German dramatizations include a Nazi propaganda film set aboard the ship. A French entry, The Chambermaid on the Titanic (1997), based on a novel, fleshes out the story with erotic reveries.
Mendelsohn argues that Walter Lord's 1955 bestselling book A Night to Remember "remains the definitive account; it has never gone out of print. In just under a hundred and fifty pages, the author crisply lays out a story that, he rightly intuited, needs no added drama." And Dave Kehr, reviewing Criterion's new release of Roy Ward Baker's 1958 adaption (co-written with suspense novelist Eric Ambler), calls A Night to Remember the "most sober in tone and historically reliable of the Titanic films… Baker solidifies the metaphor long attached to the Titanic story, turning the doomed ship into a microcosm, a representation in miniature of a society about to submerge itself into the horrors of World War I…. With A Night to Remember the welfare state Britain of 1958 looks back on the decaying imperial kingdom of 1912, and the film is full of pointed observations about class. Baker gives far more emphasis than Cameron to the plight of the lower-class passengers in steerage, trapped below by iron gates preventing their access to the first-class decks and potential rescue."
But Mendelsohn reminds us that, while class has been the focus of many retellings, for some, "it's a parable about the scope, and limits, of technology" or "a screen on which early-twentieth-century society projected its anxieties about race, gender, class, and immigration." But: "If the Titanic has gripped our imagination so forcefully for the past century, it must be because of something bigger than any fact of social or political or cultural history. To get to the bottom of why we can't forget it, you have to turn away from the facts and consider the realm to which the Titanic and its story properly belong: myth." Oddly enough, for an essayist who's written so beautifully about ancient literature and art for the New York Review of Books and a slew of other publications, once Mendelsohn turns to the echoes of Greek tragedy in the tale, his reach stretches to the breaking point. Nevertheless, he's strong on other cultural histories, Baker's adaptation, Fellowes's "ham-handed treatment" (in the New Statesman, Rachel Cooke agrees), romance as "the engine driving the plot" in Atlantic (1929) or History Is Made at Night (1937), the way the Cold War taints Jean Negulesco's Titanic (the one with Barbara Stanwyck) and Cameron's feminist argument. Seriously, if you read only one piece to mark the centenary, make it Mendelsohn's.
More notable reads, events, etc. "So, just what was filmed of the Titanic, and what survives today?" Luke McKernan investigates.
Tomorrow night at BFI Southbank, Charles Barr, author of English Hitchcock and the BFI Film Classic on Vertigo, will talk about "the Titanic film which was to have been Hitchcock's first Hollywood assignment in 1939 before Selznick replaced it with Rebecca. Hitchcock had described it as a 'marvelously dramatic subject for a motion picture'; a specially edited sequence draws upon shipboard extracts from his other films in order to show 'what might have been.'"
More on Baker's A Night to Remember. Park Circus is putting it back in UK theaters this week and the Guardian's John Patterson recommends catching it if you can. Bill Ryan and Budd Wilkins (Slant, 4.5/5) review the re-release from Criterion, which has also posted Michael Sragow's accompanying essay.
"Titanic is an easy movie to hate — but only if you haven't seen it since 1997." In that one line, Todd Gilchrist, writing for Box Office, pretty well captures the general consensus, give or take, on the re-release of Cameron's behemoth. One after another — again, with a few exceptions — critics have been taken by surprise. "It's smashing," writes New York's David Edelstein, admitting that his original 1997 review was "snotty."
In an informal debate at Salon, producer Erik Nelson (Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams) takes up the case for the defense (the prosecutor is Andrew O'Hehir): "Cameron is the Cecil B DeMille, or 'Cecil B Demented,' of our time, and unlike DeMille, his films may still be watchable 50 years from now. He's got that same mix of spectacle, hubris, technical mastery of the form and instinct for the mass audience that DeMille had, I think, without DeMille's cynicism toward his audience. Cameron does not fake it. He makes the movies he would want to watch. And Titanic is one of these. Cameron is the anti-Michael Bay, proving that bigger, sometimes, can be better. I have spent a lifetime defending 'My Man Jim' from the slings and arrows of responsible film critics. Or people with taste and subtlety."
"But CGI spectacle doesn't age gracefully," counters Nick Pinkerton in the Voice, "not even with a 3D facelift. Today, Titanic must float or sink on the enduring charisma of its young stars. [Kate] Winslet's Rose, flipping an anachronistic bird at the patriarchy, suffers from the 'feminist' pandering of Cameron's script, which seems today even more over-deliberate in a pop culture glutted with matter-of-fact warrior-women. What is most remarkable, viewed with the hindsight of nearly 15 interceding years, is the sight of [Leonardo] DiCaprio, famous bangs bounding as he runs through the ship's endless corridors, flashing a sharp little triangle of a mouth and actually smiling. It was Titanic that properly launched 'Leo-Mania,' which the actor would spend his subsequent career distancing himself from, finding torturous roles to seam his baby face with worry lines, making the leap from matinee idol to Our Serious Actor. DiCaprio has been unusually successful in this aim, but rewatching Titanic, you wish that his growing gravitas had not completely smothered his ability, wonderfully evident here, to convey simple joy."
More from Richard Corliss (Time), Cath Clarke (Time Out London, 4/5), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 5/5), Basia Cummings (Little White Lies), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 4/4), Jean-Michel Frodon (Slate.fr), Will Leitch (Deadspin), R Kurt Osenlund (Slant, 3.5/4), Tom Shone and Dana Stevens (Slate). And Ray Pride spoke with Cameron when Titanic was first released for Newcity Film.
Nick Owchar surveys a batch of new books on the Titanic for the Los Angeles Times.
From David Cairns, "Ode on the Sinking of the Ship 'Titanic,'" based on the [William Topaz] McGonagall principles of humorlessness, lachrymose bathos, fractured sing-song beats, and clunking repetitions."
Photos: The Big Picture, How to Be a Retronaut, LIFE and, from the Atlantic, the "first-ever complete map of the Titanic's wreckage and debris field, about 380 miles off the coast of Newfoundland."