Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic and The Titanic Chronicles (review)

Ship of (Accountants’) Dreams

We just can’t get enough of that big boat, can we? On the heels of August’s DVD release of Titanic (the best way to watch the film at home, despite the fact that there are no extras on the disc) comes today’s release of a new “gift set” of James Cameron’s blockbuster, which as far as I can see is just another video of the movie with some bits of merchandise junk thrown in to entice legions of Titaniacs and Leo-heads to pour more money into Cameron’s and Paramount’s already bottomless bank accounts. It’s a great film, one I think is destined to be a classic, but the money-grubbing is really unattractive.

A bit of Titanic counterprogramming debuts today in the form of two new videos from Bennu Multimedia: a digitally remastered version of an early movie account of that famous meeting with the iceberg, and a companion documentary that looks at the aftermath of the disaster. Both videos are hosted by David McCallum, who appeared in the previously definitive Titanic film, A Night to Remember.
You jump, I jump
Based on the British play The Berg, Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic debuted in 1929, only 17 years after the great ship sank. While it naturally cannot match the lushness and grandeur of Cameron’s film, it’s nevertheless quite an ambitious production for the early-sound era. Indeed, this first sound film about Titanic features scenes of submerged engine rooms and ballrooms that are strikingly reminiscent of Cameron.

The film opens at 11pm on the night of the sinking and follows first-class passengers around as they come to grips with the disaster facing them. The gentlemen who’d spent the evening drinking and playing cards and initially consider themselves “lucky” to have seen a berg when so few do later have to deal with convincing their weepy wives and daughters to get in the lifeboats and leave the men behind. The overacting is typical of the period, as are the scenes that drag on, like someone forgot to turn off the camera after the actors had exited.

Disaster keeps its distance from its characters, and has nowhere near the emotional heft of Cameron. But it is unexpectedly touching right at the end, as the band plays “Nearer My God to Thee” while those left behind on the ship sing along with the hymn. Part of the reason for the film’s uninvolvement for us today is the fact that the filmmakers were near-contemporaries to the event. Cameron needed Brock Lovett and old Rose to bring the calamity home for us, 85 years later, but for the original audience of this film, Titanic was, relatively speaking, snatched from the headlines, so much goes unsaid with the assumption that the audience can fill in the emotional details.

Disaster in the Atlantic is dated, but fans of Cameron’s film will find it a curious novelty.

Senate hearings, right ahead!
Stills from Disaster in the Atlantic show up in The Titanic Chronicles, a pseudo-Ken Burns-style documentary about the 1912 U.S. Senate investigation into the Titanic accident. With a background of old illustrations and photos, images from Disaster, and contemporary newspaper headlines, a cast of actors, most Titanic-movie vets, dramatize in voiceover highlights from testimony given before the Senate committee by surviving crew, officers, and passengers.

Amongst the readings: Eric Braeden (John Jacob Astor in Cameron’s Titanic) portrays White Star Line representative Bruce Ismay, evading responsibility for a tragedy he helped engineer. Tim Curry (who appeared in the 1996 American TV movie Titanic) reads from Second Officer Lightoller’s testimony. Marilu Henner (also from 1996’s Titanic) and Gloria Stuart (Old Rose in Cameron) portray female passengers with very different takes on the behavior of the ship’s officers and crew.

The public Senate hearings were a sensation at the time, coming mere weeks after the accident, playing to packed audiences in a ballroom at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Emotions must have run high, but not much of that comes through here. The production is a bit static, apparently limited in its choice of visual material, and the voiceovers are a bit choppy — obviously the actors did not record their readings together. And the testimony jumps around a bit — for example, the wireless operator on Titanic discusses his communications with Carpathia, the ship that eventually came to Titanic’s rescue, and then without segue begins talking about another ship in the vicinity, Frankfurt. Something’s been cut here without explanation.

Still, The Titanic Chronicles has a few wonderful moments, though, ironically, they come in the words of three people not on board the doomed ship. The captain of the Carpathia speaks movingly of holding a service on board his ship for the dead after Titanic’s survivors were rescued. A crewman on Californian, nearer to Titanic than Carpathia and much better situated for rescue, indicts the officers of his ship for ignoring unmistakable distress flares that later were identified as coming from Titanic. And Californian’s captain (voiced by the marvelous Bernard Hill, Captain Smith in Cameron) intones in an unemotional, remorseless voice that because his wireless operator was not on duty, he never received Titanic’s call for help, and insists his ship had been much too far to be of assistance anyway.

That said, The Titanic Chronicles isn’t likely to thrill those with only a casual interest in the subject. Titanic completists should enjoy, though.

Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

The Titanic Chronicles
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated
official site | IMDB

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