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History has always had the power to absorb me utterly, but it wasn't until my film Titanic that I worked with a historical subject. I learned a lot about the nature of history during my research for the screenplay, not least of which was the revelation that even the most respected history of an event is at best an approximation. After reading so many accounts of the famous disaster, and finding a great number of disparities, contradictions and unresolved mysteries, I decided to probe deeper. The transcript of the Senate Investigation proved an incredibly rich resource in several ways.
Firstly, it gives us the story as seen by the survivors, the eyewitnesses to this unforgettable tragedy, in their own words. As such it gives us tremendous immediacy. The Senate records, for example, provide the exact words spoken by the bridge officers and crew in the moments leading up to the collision, as recalled by the few survivors of that ill-fated crew. Those scenes in my film are scripted and staged precisely as the event was described by witnesses like lookout Frederick Fleet or the man at the helm, Quartermaster Hichens.
In addition, the transcript provides a fascinating look at the perceptions of various survivors, from the women huddling in the lifeboats to those fighting for their life in the freezing water. From the varied testimony one can piece together an incredibly detailed mosaic of the most dramatic disaster of the twentieth century.
But most fascinating to me was the way in which certain testimony did not jibe with historical fact. Second Officer Charles Lightoller states emphatically that the ship did not break up as she sank, and that panic wasminimal, with no gunfire at all. J. Bruce Ismay, Managing Director of the White Star Line (essentially the owner of Titanic), gives the appearance of being awfully cooperative with the investigators, yet all the while his answers are vague about several key issues, for example: his interaction with Captain Smith both before and after the collision, and his reasons for stepping into a partially filled lifeboat with the certain knowledge that a thousand or more passengers in his charge, many of them women and children, were still aboard.
As you read you can almost hear his unctuous tones as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer, shamelessly whitewashes everything in sight: the White Star Line, the behaviour of himself and the other officers, and the structural integrity of his fine ship. Scores of survivors described the ship being rent asunder at the surface, and yet for years, based mostly on Lightoller's pronouncement, it was a matter of "history" that the Titanic sank in one piece. And so all films of the disaster made prior to the discovery of the wreck in 1985, including the excellent Night to Remember, show the ship gracefully sliding beneath the sea intact.
Bruce Ismay had a complete psychological collapse during and immediately after the crisis (and was seen in the doctor's cabin of the rescue ship Carpathia sitting mutely, staring, near catatonic). He had pulled himself together enough by the time of the Senate inquiry to function with apparent normalcy, but his testimony is fascinating both as a study in guilty denial and clever corporate vagueness, smokescreened by the appearance of gentlemanly cooperation. He denies speaking to Captain Smith about the speed of the crossing but in fact was clearly overheard by Mrs. Elizabeth Lines in a conversation with Smith, while seated in the D-Deck Reception Area after lunch on the day before the collision, exhorting him to maintain top speed. All of his answers must be seen through the filter of his personal state of mind and likely culpability.
Remember to read the transcripts with a post-sixties cynicism. Remember that basic human nature was the same in 1912 as it was during Watergate, despite the greater surface appearance of nobility during that gilded age. Coverup, lies, corporate denial of guilt or responsibility...these are not new concepts.
Remember that guilt goes beyond management and officers. Hundreds of passengers floated in half-empty lifeboats, listening to the cries and moans of 1500 people dying nearby in water that was 2 degrees below freezing. The cries lasted almost an hour, some of them, but the guilt would have lasted a lifetime. Filter the testimony of the survivors through that lens of shame.
Also remember that witnesses to a traumatic event struggle to make a narrative out of a jumble of impressions. They fabricate and distort. They try to fit the data to the theory, to give it structure and meaning. As the ship's hull ripped like cardboard under the vast pressure of the uplifted stern, the electric lights which had burned so bravely suddenly winked out. What happened next, as the witnesses' eyes adjusted to utter blackness lit only by starlight, was not seen but only heard for seconds, even minutes. The thunder of the splitting hull thus became for many the crashing of engines and boilers tumbling within the steeply tilted ship, or the sound of boilers exploding (none of which happened).
As their eyes adjusted, they saw the stern of Titanic like a black tower standing straight up against the stars. The stern had fallen back, nearly level, and then risen rapidly to the perpendicular. Though a few witnesses describe the stern appearing to "right herself" before the final rise, most never saw the violent gyrations of the dying ship which happened between lights out and that last stable moment of grace before she plunged straight down to eternity.
Put yourself there. Feel the cold and the darkness. Feel the pounding of your heart, the pure terror of the event, the onrush of your own mortality, the horror of self-recrimination in the black hours before dawn as you question your actions, why you survived and others didn't.
Then ask yourself, as you read, if the person speaking could be mistaken, or was even in a position to see what they say they saw, or might even have had a reason to lie or cover up the truth.
Everyone who studies Titanic's many stories must ultimately form their own conclusions. While remaining respectful of the work of the good and thorough historians who have gone before us, each of us must function as his or her own historian, skeptical of everything. In this light, the transcript of the Senate Investigation is both vastly informative and yet constantly tantalizing, as the elusive truth lurks between the lines, not within them.
James Cameron February 24, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by Tom Kuntz