Saturday, April 14, 2012

"What do you see?" - April 14, 1912

On this night, one hundred years ago, the R.M.S.Titanic approached its fateful encounter with a chunk of ice.

After sighting the huge iceberg, Lookout Frederick Fleet rang the crow’s nest bell three times between 11:30 and 11:40 on the night of April 14, 1912.

“Is someone there?” he said over the phone to the bridge.

“What do you see?” said Sixth Officer Moody.

“Iceberg right ahead.”

Over at The Sheila Variations, Sheila has posted a poignant commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic as a tribute to Titanic obsessives.

Being a Titanic obsessive myself, I wanted to post a few comments in way of my own commemoration.

My obsession with Titanic began when I was 10 years old or so and I saw Titanic (1953), with Clifton Webb and Barbra Stanwyck, on television. I was duly obsessed. I watched the movie whenever it was on TV. Imitating the dialogue and sound effects from the film, I re-enacted the sinking in the bathtub countless times.

Despite the film’s romantic and inaccurate depiction of the sinking (an underwater shot shows the ship’s portside hull hitting the iceberg), I still consider it a touching and dramatic account of this tragic disaster. I love how it starts out with the iceberg rising to the surface of the sea. It builds wonderful tension during the moments before the collision. Even James Cameron pays tribute to the film by borrowing the line about “announcing dinner as though it were a cavalry charge” from Clifton Webb. For a much more accurate account, the fine A Night to Remember (1958), based on Walter Lord’s non-fictional account, holds up dramatically.

From these 50s movies, my obsession went on to books that debunked the legends and set me straight on the facts.

Throughout my life, I have enjoyed a number of Titanic thrills:

Reading the National Geographic article of Robert Ballard’s discovery of how the Titanic really sank when I had moved to Cape Cod, not far from Woods Hole where Ballard's expedition began.

Seeing the 28-foot model used in the 1953 film at the Fall River Marine Museum.

Discovering Ken Marschall's glorious book of paintings (the basis for much of the art direction in Cameron's Titanic) before I even knew James Cameron was planning his own film.

Seeing James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) six times at the theater: twice in December, 1997, and then once a month through April, 1998. Sometimes I shudder at some of the film’s silly bits, but this is a meticulously researched film and the depiction of the sinking is amazing. Reading James Cameron’s Titanic, the book about the making of the film by Ed W. Marsh, is an inspiring account of the epic extent to which the creative process can go.

(In defense of the film’s accuracy, I wrote a rebuttal to a local Harbormaster who went on record in a Cape Cod Times article reporting viewers’ opinions to say that the helmsman in the movie turns the ship’s wheel the wrong way to go “hard a’ starboard.” To prove him wrong, I discovered a passage from the Titanic inquest which clearly states that Quartermaster Hichens turned the wheel “counter-clockwise,” as in the film, not toward starboard, because in those days British commands were based on a sailboat with a tiller. Thus, going “hard a’ starboard” meant turning the stern to starboard, sending the ship’s bow to port. I wrote the Harbormaster but never got a reply.)

Seeing the traveling Titanic: the Artifact Exhibit in San Francisco and touching a piece of the hull!

Being inspired by Titanic-obsessed girls in my Drama Club to write my own full length Titanic stage play, with historical and original fictional characters, and producing it at the high school where I teach.

Seeing the re-release of Titanic (1997) - the best screen experience I’ve seen in a long time.

Well, time to go. It’s the night of April 13th on screen and Robert Wagner gets to dance with Audrey Dalton, Clifton Webb learns he is not the father of his “son,” and a drunken Richard Basehart reveals he is an excommunicated Catholic priest. In James Cameron’s film, the night of April 13th covers Frances Fisher cinching Kate Winslet up in a corset. All the drama, passion, heroism, tragedy, and fateful serendipity take place on the night of April 14th – 15th, 1912.

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