Why is the story of the Titanic still so fascinating all these years later? Here’s a clue: it’s not treasure, even though the last two big budget feature films about the luxury liner – James Cameron’s Titanic and the much less highly regarded 1980 blockbuster flop Raise the Titanic – both revolved around people wanting to get something priceless out of the sunken wreck’s vault. It’s been over a century since the Titanic went down in the north Atlantic and we’re still obsessed.
With Titanic: The New Evidence about to shine new light on the disaster, here are five reasons why we just can’t let it go.
It’s a great metaphor
You couldn’t come up with a better metaphor for humanity’s pride and arrogance if you made it up – although, notoriously, author Morgan Robertson did in his 1898 novella, Futility, which was about the sinking of the world’s biggest ocean liner (named the Titan) after striking an iceberg. The Titanic was advertised as the most luxurious and advanced vessel ever, a symbol of progress and technology designed to be the height of Edwardian elegance and beauty that was filled to the brim with the rich and powerful… and then it sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage.
So many elements of the Titanic story reek of arrogance, from the watertight doors that supposedly made it unsinkable (except when more than four compartments were breached) to the number of lifeboats (which were over the then-legal limit but still not enough for everyone on board). And then there’s the fate of the passengers in steerage, mostly poor immigrants left to fend for themselves while the first class passengers were shown to the lifeboats. While the idea of the rich escaping while the poor drowned isn’t entirely true – percentage-wise more third class female passengers survived than first class males – the image of the poor being trapped below while the rich escaped remains strong to this day.
It’s a feature-length disaster
These days, most disasters take place in the blink of an eye. When a plane crashes or a ferry sinks, either it happens too fast for anyone to have time to react or it takes long enough for rescuers to arrive. But the Titanic took two hours and 40 minutes to sink. That’s enough time for people to figure out what’s happening, react to it and prepare for their fate.
So while most people who die in modern tragedies are living their regular lives until disaster brings them to a sudden end, with the Titanic, the passengers were able to respond and struggle to survive or accept their fate. Plus the way the ship sank is a story in itself, slowly flooding below decks (initially most passengers didn’t even realise there was a problem) until the final chaotic minutes where the stern reared up into the air and the ship broke apart.
It’s still kind of a mystery
We all know the basics: the Titanic sideswiped an iceberg at 11.40pm, rupturing the hull along the first five watertight compartments, allowing water in until the ship sank at 2.20am. But as Titanic: The New Evidence shows, beyond that there’s always something new to discover. Until the wreck was found in 1985 it was generally assumed the ship sank in one piece (thus explaining Raise the Titanic). It’s only recently been discovered that the iceberg only ruptured the hull instead of peeling it open.
As the years go by, the speculation grows. In a 1998 book, Robin Gardiner claimed the Titanic didn’t actually sink at all. Supposedly, it was actually her sister ship, the Olympic, which had been renamed for nefarious corporate purposes and was planned to be scuttled at sea for the insurance. Slightly more plausibly, the quality of the steel used in the hull has also been called into question. And was the Titanic secretly sunk on the orders of its owner, JP Morgan, to eliminate his rivals? Let’s go with “no”.
It’s full of memorable characters
With approximately 2,224 passengers and crew ranging from Western society’s elite to immigrants looking for a new life, there’s no shortage of colourful characters on the Titanic to pick and choose from. John Jacob Astor, one of the world’s richest men, was on board with his pregnant 18-year-old wife, while Ben Guggenheim (as in the Guggenheim museum) died in the sinking, as did millionaire and owner of Macy’s department store Isidor Strass and his wife. At a time before the prominence of film and TV stars, they were the pop culture figures of their day – it’d be as if the 2017 Oscars somehow sank.
It’s not just the high and mighty either. Whether it’s the band who reportedly kept on playing until the end, the ship’s baker who claimed to have rode the stern of the ship down as it sank and survived the freezing water largely by being drunk or the radio operator who was one of the first to use the distress signal SOS, it’s a ship full of compelling stories great and small.
It’s still tragic
In the early hours of 16 April, 1912, around 1500 people died in the icy waters of the North Atlantic. There are plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t have. If the Titanic had heeded warnings about icebergs; if the lookouts had seen the iceberg in time – or had seen it later and the ship had struck it head-on instead of scraping down the side; if the ship had been carrying enough lifeboats; if the watertight bulkheads had been higher; if the SS Californian, which was close enough to see the distress flares but did nothing, had responded to them; if the lifeboats which did get away, many of which were partly empty, had gone back to rescue survivors in the water... If any of those things had happened, then lives – perhaps even all the lives lost – would have been saved. Their deaths were undeniably tragic, and by keeping them in mind even now, maybe they won’t have been in vain.
Watch Titanic: The New Evidence on Sunday 13 August at 8:30pm on SBS.