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Titanic is like a stage where God says to you, “You have two hours to play out the rest of your life. What will you be? Will you be a hero? Will you be a coward?”
Those words, uttered by Titanic actor Bill Paxton in James Cameron’s other film about the Titanic, the undersea documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, are about as appropriate a prelude to one of my grievances with Cameron’s mega-hit as anything.
It is a moral crime that Cameron’s film, which has sadly become the definitive retelling of the story for our generation, is so stunted in its depiction of the range of human moral behavior in times of crisis. Titanic highlights and indeed exaggerates the cowardice, the folly, the dereliction of duty, while ignoring the heroism, the nobility, the self-sacrifice which is also an integral part of the story. Yes, Cameron allows for the possibility of heroism in the name of romantic love, self-sacrifice for one’s best beloved — but not heroism for strangers, or in the name of duty.
Saving the Titanic, a docudrama airing this month on PBS, sheds light on an untold page from the heroic side of the ledger. Combining traditional documentary with speculative historical dramatization, it highlights the story of the engineering crew, firemen, electricians and stokers who labored below decks to keep power flowing to pumps and lifeboat winches, first hoping to save the ship and then striving to delay the inevitable as long as possible to save as many lives as possible.
Even if you’ve already seen a number of Titanic presentations, Saving the Titanic is likely to surprise you a few times. For example, I hadn’t known about the spontaneous coal fire, fueled by cheap coal purchased during a coal strike, which damaged the hull days prior to the iceberg collision, contributing to the disaster.
Saving the Titanic is certainly not a complete documentary look at the disaster as a whole. Its interests are with the crew below decks, not with the passengers or senior officers. Still, as a contribution to the screen record of Titanic material, it’s a valuable contribution and well worth catching. Worth noting are a couple of moments of matter-of-fact Christian spirituality, including a familiar grace before meals and a crew member praying a rosary during the disaster.
Saving the Titanic premieres on Sunday, April 1 at 10pm ET, with encore presentations scheduled for Friday, April 6, at 10:30pm, Tuesday, April 10, at 9:00pm ET and Saturday, April 14, at 9:00pm ET. Check local listings.