Honoring the Heroine: Rose DeWitt Bukater

It is a little bit early to discuss Titanic. While the movie does have its 20 year anniversary this year (and is still one of the top grossing movies of all times, despite inflation and rising ticket prices), it was actually released in December 1997. But, as you all know, December is always reserved for fairy tale heroines. And considering that Infinity war will be released next year, I plan to do something Comic Book related in January. And, as you should know, November is always kind of a “let’s take it easy month” with something Halloween related thrown in. No matter what, there isn’t really a good moment to discuss Titanic close to its actual anniversary, so I decided to tackle it now, ahead of time. It is still the right year after all.

Titanic is a little bit of a borderline case for my blog. It is not a rom-com, but it is a romance heavy movie and I usually look for movies where the romance is more of a side-show and not the main event. Titanic is built all around the romance…or is it? The marketing will make you believe it for sure. But the movie is so much more than that.

First and foremost it is a catastrophe movie based on a historic event. The sinking of the Titanic has become so much of a mythos it is easy to forget sometimes that this actually happened. People died on this ship. Making a movie about this event is a little bit like making one about the Greenfell tower fire, except that we are now far enough removed from the event that we have kind of lost the connection to the people who fell victim to the tragedy and a lot of what historically happened has been buried under myth. For example the notion that the Titanic was “unsinkable” was an attribute attached to it after the catastrophe, simply because it made good headlines. The story about William McMaster Murdoch firing into the crowd before killing himself? Yeah, mostly conjuncture, and the movie has gotten quite a lot of flak for repeating the lie. But while there is still a willingness to defend one of the “little people”, especially if it is the person who managed to launch ten of the live boats and thus being responsible for the rescue of 75% of the survivors, there is little interest to defend those who are deemed responsible for the catastrophe.

Like the owner Bruce Ismay. To be perfectly clear about this: I think he deserves scorn for the lack of live boats on the Titanic. And maybe you can argue that he should have stayed on board on the ship (even though it most likely wouldn’t have rescued anyone else if he stayed). But the story that he encouraged the captain to act recklessly in an attempt to break some record is just that, a story, and a pretty unlikely one. As is the notion that he disguised himself as a woman in order to be able to enter one of the live boats. Some claim that he jumped into a half-empty boat after having helped woman and children into the boats beforehand. The most believable account is that he got a place in one of the last boats after the call for woman and children wasn’t answered. But however he ended up in one of the boats, and however one feels about him leaving his own ship while so many others died, he did so in his own clothes.

Oh, yes, the live boats. This is actually a really interesting study. Because what caused so many people to die on the Titanic wasn’t just the lack of live-boat, it was also the way they got handled. The Titanic was initially sinking fairly slowly, there was more than enough time to put as many people as possible into the live boats. There were 20 boats available which would have been able to evacuate 1,178 of the approximately 2,224 people on board. But the live boats only carried 712 people to safety, meaning at least 466 people more could have been rescued if the evacuation hadn’t been such a chaos. The crew wasn’t properly trained for a situation like this, nor were the passengers. Most of the live boats weren’t fully loaded, and some believe that the “woman and children first” rule actually proved to be detrimental, because where the crew just followed the rule to a certain point and allowed men into the boats if neither woman or children were nearby, the capacity of the boats were used better. In addition to this, the last two boats were never properly launched, though around 42 people found refuge on what was left of them until they were transferred to some of the other live boats which came back later on – so, yes, the movie takes a lot creative license when it acts as if Rose getting picked up was an exception, there were a number of people who survived by waiting for hours on floating wood, most notable 17-year old Jack Thayer who I consider the best source for what actually happened this night. Not just because he was there until the bitter end, he was also insisting that the Titanic broke in half, contrary to popular belief until the wreck was eventually found by using his account of the night.

Well, so much about the actual history. You might have noticed that there are some points in this movie which annoy me, because they are more based on the Titanic mythos than on history and, imho, those flourishes add little to the actual story. What actually happened is interesting enough. And it doesn’t help that the movie painstakingly re-enacts old footage and photos from the Titanic, which suggests more accuracy than there is actually present.  But I am ready to forgive the movie for two reasons: One, it acknowledges itself that learning about an event like this is very different from actually experiencing it. And two, the story is told from Rose’s perspective, who is an old woman who might or might not exaggerate some aspects or just believe that certain things happened.

It is the frame story which allow this movie to get away with a lot. Cal can be a quite cartoonish over the top villain because that’s how Rose remembers him. Jack can be an exceptional young man of rare talent because that is how Rose saw him. For the story, it doesn’t really matter, because this is not the story of Cal or even Jack, it is the story of Rose. So, what do we learn about Rose before she encounters Jack?

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She is upper-class but not really rich, her impending marriage with Cal is supposed to rescue her whole family from financial ruin. She is quite smart and educated but she never went to university because, according to her mother Ruth, the only point of university is to find a good husband and Rose already managed that. She has an interest in and a good instinct for art, having bought a number of Picassos even though he isn’t famous yet. And she absolutely hates her live. She feels imprisoned by the expectations society has towards her, and she rightly suspects that her impending marriage will imprison her even further. This thought is what drives her to attempted suicide, or, depending on your point of view, seriously considering suicide in the hope that there will be someone out there who will pull her back from the brink. And this someone turns out to be Jack.

Now, Jack, there is actually not much to his character. He is exactly the kind of romantic hero you would want in a story like this, poor but talented, kind of a flirt but recklessly in love with Rose to the point that he would die for her. And naturally the star-crossed lover angle always sells. What makes this romance work is that it is more a journey of self-discovery for Rose than about the usual will they or won’t they construct.

A large chunk of the movie is about class, with most of the characters Rose encounters being a different representation society. There is the upper class Rose is familiar with, neatly divided in two groups: The entitled and the progressive. The entitled are not necessarily bad people, after all it would be kind of coarse to portray the first class passengers who choose to not seek out a live boat out of a sense of honour too negatively, but the character who represents them the most is in the end Cal. Even before Jack enters the picture, he constantly belittles Rose and tries to control her actions, and when the Titanic sinks, he displays a callous disregard for those who don’t belong to what he deems the “better half” of the people in the ship. Rose’s mother Ruth also belongs into the group, though her crime is more that she is caught up in acting according to the rules of society, securing her own and her daughter’s financial future the only way she knows and having really no grasp on reality. She doesn’t see that Cal is abusive, she doesn’t realize how much she herself is hurting Rose on an emotional level and when the Titanic starts to sink she has no understanding for the catastrophe which is about to unfold.

The progressive views are represented by people like Molly Brown and the shipbuilder Thomas Andrews. But then Molly Brown is “nouveau rich” and Thomas Andrews is present due to his job, so neither of them really belong into this society. They both make biting comments once in a while, so they kind of voice what the audience might think in certain situations, emphasising the entitlement of the other characters even more.

Jack and his friends are naturally representing the poor class. And here the movie does something very unusual. In most stories in which rich girls (I deliberately use the word “girl”) dream of a simpler live, they first have a painful encounter with reality to “cure” them from their romantic ideas. Even if they do end up with something close to what they initially imagined, they first have to give up on their romantic notions. With Rose, it is kind of the opposite, in that she keeps telling herself that leaving her privileged life behind her and following her dreams is an unrealistic plan, until she meets Jack who tells her otherwise. Her first experience with the working class is a positive one and encourages her to take the leap in the end.

A lot of movies end with a character taking a leap like this. Titanic is slightly unusual in that we get to see if the leap paid off – and apparently, it did. We learn that Rose was working as an actress (maybe taking advantage the ballet lessons she had as a child) and then settled down and got a bunch of children in what we can assume was a happy marriage. We also see in the end that she apparently did all the things she planned to do with Jack, enjoying her live to the fullest. And that is the reason why she deserves her place in my little gallery. Her story is an encouragement to women to follow their dreams instead of allowing society to dictate what they should be. Because if you feel like you should take a leap, you should do it towards a different future and not the ice-cold ocean.

And that is the actual point. Rose starts out as a layered character, but with little agenda on her own. Or, to be precise, the agenda she does have is supressed by the people surrounding her. Even when she wants to commit suicide it is less a choice and more a reaction to what other force on her. But the moment she meets Jack she starts to fight back, deliberately breaking the chains of society which held her. By the time the Titanic starts to sink, she is taking control over her life, and manages to hold onto her newfound freedom.

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Quote: “It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains. Outwardly, I was everything a well brought up girl should be. Inside, I was screaming.”

Titanic is one of those culturally important movie one should have seen at least once in life. I personally saw it two times when it was running in theatres but I admit, that I have rarely bothered with it since then. Not because I dislike the movie, but because I feel that this is one of those movies one has to see on the big screen to truly appreciate. The sinking of the Titanic just doesn’t have the same impact in a small format. So if you are one of the few people who hasn’t seen it yet and you have the chance to see it in a theatre, use the opportunity. Also if you did see it beforehand on TV and never got what the fuss was about. It is worth it. 

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