On the one hundredth anniversary of the sailing of the ill-fated liner Titanic from Southampton, all the old beliefs have been trotted out; “She was unsinkable”, “The third-class passengers were locked below decks”, “The president of the shipping company fled as a coward”.
Alas, these trite statements turn out to have little factual basis, despite the fact that many people believe them, having seen them on film. The thing is, films are made to be dramatic, not records of history. The phrase ‘based on a true story” often means “nothing like what actually happened”.
Of course, a hundred years on, it’s hard to distinguish truth from dramatic legend. But let’s try. No-one at the White Star Line was ever hear to say that the ship was unsinkable. That was a myth that grew up after the ship went down, and certainly made for a more powerful story. In James Cameron’s recent film. A character looks up at the Titanic and says “so that’s the ship they say is unsinkable” Er…no they didn’t.
So were the third-class passengers doomed to a watery grave by padlocked gates? No they weren’t. Steerage passengers were below decks, and separate from other passengers to comply with US regulations. It would have taken them longer to reach lifeboats, as the survival rates show. The British Inquiry Report noted that the Titanic was in compliance with the American immigration law in force at the time – and that allegations that third class passengers were locked below decks were false.
But what of the villainous businessman J Bruce Ismay, the president of the company that built the Titanic, who leapt into one of the first lifeboats, leaving women and children behind? Contemporary records show that in fact that Ismay had helped many other passengers before finding a place for himself on the last lifeboat to leave the starboard side. He was, in many senses, a hero. So why the “villain” tag? Some years before, he had a big row with William Randolph Hurst. After the sinking, Hurst’s newspapers published lists of the dead and survivors, with only one name in the survivors column, that of J Bruce Ismay (or as Hurst dubbed him, J Brute Ismay). Poor Ismay suffered a year of press vilification before he died, a broken man, in 1913.
And no, the band didn’t play “Nearer my God to thee” on deck either. Even James Cameron admitted he stole that story from an earlier film because it “made such a strong dramatic point”.
So does it matter that historical truth (if there is such a thing) and artistic licence become confused? I think it does. As we remember those who perished in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, we should not allow truth to become another victim.
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