National Catholic Register


A Few Post-Oscar Grumblings on Titanic

BY Jim Cosgrove

April 12-18, 1998 Issue | Posted 4/12/98 at 2:00 AM


Andrew Jack is a brave man. The U.K.'s Financial Times correspondent wrote a stunning rebuke of the blockbuster movie, Titanic, calling it “clichÈ-ridden” and “excessively hyped.’

The British do have a talent for understating the obvious.

At the moment, Titanic is riding a tidal wave of approval. Its box office receipts make it the largest-grossing moving of all time. It won a fistful of Oscars last month, including “Best Picture.’

And, if you think the film is big in America, try getting a ticket for it in Paris.

p align="left">It's so popular in France right now, you would have better luck flying to the United States to see it.

At least, that's what a Parisian friend said, on a recent visit to America.

"What do you want to see?” I asked her, thinking of various museums and historic sites.

Frankly, I liked the film. But, I have a few complaints. Like the Financial Times critic, I think the producer should have left a half-hour of celluloid on the editing room floor. In a three-hour saga, how many frantic scenes do we need of water-soaked stars running around below deck?

In addition, I think the script was, at times, less than adequate. “Come on! This way!” seems to be the line du jour during the last half of the movie.

And, of course, this being the 1990s, there was no chance of the PG-13 movie being released without the inclusion of at least one sex scene—in a film that is sure to be seen by almost every eight-year-old in America.

More than all that, though, there seems to be an odd kind of class bigotry at play in the story.

I'm glad the movie is historically accurate about the fact that immigrants were locked below the decks of the sinking ship. During the Titanic disaster it wasn't, “Women and children first.’ In reality, it was, “First-class passengers first.’

But, the extreme contrast between the high-class dinner and the low-class Irish dance was almost too much to take.

My grandparents crossed the Atlantic in steerage class two years after the sinking of the S.S. Titanic. They may have been poor, but they had clear standards of proper behavior.

In real life, I doubt that the lower-class passengers acted like the barnyard brutes shown in the movie. Yes, the Irish have a genetic predilection toward alcoholism, but anyone who has been to a real Irish dance, as compared to the American Irish version, will attest that they are family events that often don't include alcohol.

Before boarding the S.S. Titanic during its last stop in Queenstown, Ireland, I'm sure almost every one of the immigrants attended confession at St. Coleman's Cathedral, high on the hill overlooking the wharves. With Mass looming the morning after their Saturday night dance, they wouldn't be quick to lose their chance to receive Communion.

And, will someone please teach Leonardo DiCaprio how to dance Irish-style? The movie shows him whirling with an immigrant child. But, he's doing a disco step—nothing that could pass for Irish.

After all the hype about the trouble taken to make sure the movie was accurate, it makes me wonder.

In the end, the movie's most haunting scenes have little to do with Hollywood, and everything to do with the courage of the 1,513 men and women who died in the disaster.

One of them was Father Thomas Byles, a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Westminster, whose body was never recovered. While the first class passengers were at Sunday Morning prayer service, Father Byles was saying Mass in the second class lounge. Following this, he offered Mass in steerage, hours before the fatal crash.

During the sinking, he was last seen on the aft of the ship where he led passengers in the rosary. At some point, he granted a general absolution to those who huddled around him. The movie shows the former, but not the latter.

Of course, Jack and Kate are fictional characters. But, the real tragedy is the fact that Jack died, it would seem, with serious sin on his soul.

For someone in the state of grace, the death of the body is a burden only for those who are left behind. But, the loss of an immortal soul is a catastrophe beyond comprehension.

In real life, the man who could have liberated them was within an arm's reach.

Kathleen Howley is a Boston-based journalist.