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James Cameron analyzes what he got right and wrong in ‘Titanic: 20 Years Later’

Nearly two decades after Titanic sailed into theaters, does the Oscar-winning film stay afloat?

The movie’s writer-director explores what he got right and wrong in National Geographic’s Titanic: 20 Years Later with James Cameron Sunday. In the special, he compares the choices he made for the movie starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio with the real-life events surrounding the ship that plummeted to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean in 1912.

“For the movie Titanic, we unearthed every known photograph, poured over architectural drawings and built our ship rivet by rivet, making sure everything was in its rightful place, as was known back in 1996,” Cameron says.

Since making the 1997 film, Cameron has made 33 dives to the wreckage site, and new forensic analysis has come to light. Here’s how Cameron’s Titanic stacks up against what we’ve learned after the movie dropped.

James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic is coming back to theaters for one week to celebrate the film’s 20th Anniversary. USA TODAY

Sets

During the program, Cameron visits Reagan Library’s Titanic exhibit, where he evaluates his sets for authenticity. The Straus Suite where DiCaprio’s Jack drew Winslet’s Rose like one of his French girls was inspired by a motif known to be on Titanic and its sister ship Olympic, Cameron says.

“We placed it into the portside millionaire’s suite, the three-room suite, ‘cause nobody knew what was in them,” Cameron says of the decision. “I was working in what was not known.” In 2005, while visiting Titanic, Cameron says he saw the real Straus Suite, which “looked just like the fake set that we got built.”

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) greets Rose DeWitt
Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) greets Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) at the bottom of a staircase in ‘Titanic.’ (Photo: Merie Weismiller Wallace, Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox)
Fans of the movie will also remember the grand staircase, where Jack invites Rose to “a real party.” Built from Titanic’s plans, the staircase was accurate, but almost resulted in catastrophe, Cameron reveals.

“The staircase has got a steel footing, then when we sank the ship, it lifted,” he says. “Wood is buoyant. It ripped off that footing and it all floated up, and it actually pinned two stunt players. Fortunately, they weren’t hurt, but it was a pretty scary moment.”

One room that tripped Cameron up was the Marconi Wireless Room, where the captain directed a wireless operator to make the distress call after the ship collided with an iceberg. Cameron explains that he designed the room based on “one, kind of funky, double-exposed picture (of Titanic).” The photograph didn’t show the whole room so Cameron flushed it out using a photo of the Olympic. Cameron says this decision “turned out to be completely wrong.”

The sinking of the ship

While Cameron’s sinking of the Titanic offered plenty of drama, it’s not known exactly how the ship descended to the ocean floor. To get an idea, Cameron conducts a test with a model ship in a tank.

“We can never prove what actually happened,” he warns. “We can only prove what might have happened.”

After the tests, Cameron concludes his film is faulty. “We found out you can have the stern sink vertically and you can have the stern fall back with and a big splash, but you can’t have both,” he says. “So, the film is wrong on one point or the other. I tend to think it’s wrong on the fall back of the stern because of what we see at the bow of the wreck.”

Greg Tash, John Garvin and Gene Warren III prepare
Greg Tash, John Garvin and Gene Warren III prepare a model of the Titanic for a test. (Photo: James Glader, National Geographic)
Cameron also tests the theory that if more lifeboats were aboard the ship more people would’ve been saved. However, after calculating the time it would take to ready, load and lower a boat, he concludes more lifeboats would’ve actually been a hindrance.

“I think if you had more lifeboats on that ship, they would’ve just gotten in the way and would’ve cost hundreds of lives,” he says.

Descendants of those aboard

While Paul Kurzman, great-grandson of passengers Isidor and Ida Straus, says he was stunned by the accuracy of Cameron’s picture, the filmmaker admits he took some creative liberties, which he deeply regrets. He says he wasn’t always sensitive to how his choices would impact the characters’ families.

“In the case of First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, I took the liberty of showing him shoot somebody and then shoot himself,” Cameron says. “He’s a named character; he wasn’t a generic officer. We don’t know that he did that, but you know the storyteller in me says, ‘Oh.’ I start connecting the dots: he was on duty, he’s carrying all this burden with him, made him an interesting character.

“But I was being a screenwriter,” Cameron continues. “I wasn’t thinking about being a historian, and I think I wasn’t as sensitive about the fact that his family, his survivors might feel offended by that and they were.”

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