The movie referred to in the discussions below is the 1997 James Cameron film, "Titanic", unless otherwise specified. James Cameron has publicly stated that he used the Titanic as a stage (albeit a well-detailed one) on which his play about two fictional star-crossed lovers would be performed, and that it was never his intention for the film to be construed as documentary. However, the verisimilitude of the sets and storyline can give the viewer a false impression of the ship's true history, so I have attempted here to sort some of the larger facts (I'll try to avoid nit-picking specific details) from the movie's fiction. This is in no way a criticism of the movie, as I revelled in seeing Titanic brought back to life on the big screen.
Could passengers stand at the bow railing, as did the main fictional characters in the movie?
In a general sense, no. Passengers were not allowed forward of the forecastle breakwater for safety reasons. A ship can be a dangerous place to the unwary, especially in the vicinity of machinery, of which there was a great deal on the foredeck. An ankle could easily be turned on the ground tackle, a removable section of rail could give way if inadvertently leaned against, or one could stumble into the cradle where the centre anchor was stowed. The one existing picture of Titanic's foredeck shows a sign posted on the breakwater warning passengers that they were not allowed forward. However, there exists a personal account that possibly describes a woman standing at the stem. This account was used, along with a bit of artistic embellishment, to justify the scene in the movie.
Did the ship actually break in two, as depicted in the movie?
Not one survivor account supports the movie image of the stern crashing in violent fashion back into the water, creating a large surge wave. For decades, many believed the finding of the Wreck Commission...that the ship sank intact. The condition of the wreck supports those few who maintained that the ship broke on the surface. How do we account for this?
One aspect of the movie depiction is most assuredly not true, and that is the manner in which the ship broke apart. Titanic's hull formed a hollow box-like structure, supported externally by the steel shell plating and internally by longitudinal and transverse beams and bulkheads. Given the stresses that Titanic was under due to the unsupported stern, this structure would have bent in curve, with the structure fracturing at weak points (like a stairwell or engine casing) in the vicinity of the fulcrum that was formed between the flooded bow and the buoyant stern. As the bend increased, the hull structure would have deformed and begun to separate, starting with the lighter superstructure atop the hull. Light Room Greaser Alfred White was a witness to the start of the breakup, as he watched a fissure open beneath his vantage point high above the deck on the front of the aft-most funnel. The manner in which the ship broke apart in the movie had more to do with the unit director's need for multiple takes than actual structural mechanics. Digital Domain had to construct the break-apart model in such a way that it could be split in half over and over again, with only cosmetic repair needed to prepare the model for each successive shot. The distortion of the hull plating seen in the final print was digitally added to add realism to the break-up, but could not be made as severe as it would have been in real life.
Much has been learned in recent years about the break-up of the ship. Analysis of the wreck imagery from the 2001 Earthship, 2004 NOAA and 2005 LWDG expeditions has given us better insight on the forces acting on Titanic's hull structure. For my analysis, please read "More Questions Than Answers, Part 2"
Those were exciting scenes in the engine room after Full Astern was ordered. Was that depiction accurate?
The sequence showing the engine room crew hurrying to engage the reversing engine conveyed a sense of urgency that Cameron wanted the audience to feel. It was theoretically possible to reverse the engine linkages within 10-30 seconds after reacting to the telegraph and redirect the engine exhaust steam flow from the centre turbine to the condensers for FULL ASTERN, but in fact the action in the movie sequence is not consistent with survivor testimony. None of the surviving boiler- and engine- room personnel testified to a scene similar to that depicted in the movie; in fact, their testimony indicates that the engine room never received a FULL ASTERN order.
Simply put, the boiler rooms would never have received a STOP order (the red light on the telegraph was mentioned specifically by Leading Fireman Barrett) if the engines had been ordered FULL ASTERN. The boiler telegraphs would have continued to display the blue light, indicting FULL.
The centre screw is shown stopped, apparently locked, while the outboard screws are churning in reverse. This is not necessarily true. The centre turbine was not immediately stopped when the reversing engine was engaged, as the latter had its own steam cylinder with which it could reverse the engine linkages. Until the exhaust steam was redirected to the condensers for full power in the new direction, the centre turbine would still be turning. Given the short amount of time from the engine orders until the collision, it is quite possible that the centre screw was still providing wash across the rudder at the time of impact, even though the reciprocating engines were stopped. This is consistent with the testimony of Greaser Thomas Ranger, who noticed the turbine (just below his location in the Electrical Workshop) was stopped approximately two minutes after he and the Chief Electrician felt a shock along the hull.
On the other hand, the depiction of the actions taken by the firemen in the boiler rooms in shutting the dampers and drawing off the steam was extremely accurate.
Were the engine-order telegraphs lit from within, as shown in the movie?
The engine-order telegraphs on the forebridge could be illuminated from within to show the orders that were available to the watch officer. However, during open-ocean transit when engine orders consisted mainly of minor changes in revolution, the lights in the telegraphs were extinguished so that even the dim illumination behind the telegraph facings would not adversely affect the watch officers' night vision. Therefore, the brightly lit telegraphs in the movie would not have been seen during the night of the actual collision. For more information about the telegraphs, read Bill Sauder's article.
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