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Titanic Stories
by Joe Nolan

Shylock was allowed his pound of flesh – but not one drop of blood! I have been to see the blockbuster movie Titanic tonight. You have your pound of flesh – but I yield not one drop of (perhaps unconventional?) convictions regarding that ill-fated ship. I am of the subsequent generation – at 74 – to that of the years of the disaster, and I hold my previously stated convictions.

In the 1950s I drove for a time all the cranes which were used to build the ship, and on both No.1 and No.2 shipways, where Olympic and Titanic were built. I never saw the ship but my father worked on it, as did his mates. At ages 14 to 17 I heard them discuss the disaster – and the ship before the disaster – when it was being built. In the past few years I have seen both films. RTE 1 {Irish National Television Station} showed ‘A Night to Remember’ on Saturday 31st January, so I had to watch it again.

The newsreel shots of the launch were good and the close-ups were not necessarily of the Titanic launch but were ‘period,’ valid up until about 1950! On this, my second viewing of the film, I was able to see that a great use was made of a sizeable ship model in those gigantic indoor tanks that Hollywood used in those days for se a shots. This did allow for some good shots of the model ‘at sea’. This film is not just ‘a good documentary’, but is ‘a well told tale’, and one I believe which got pretty close to the truth in the year of its making, which was 1958.

The 1997 film Titanic is an excellent film. I am glad that you lot challenged me to go and see it. My previous inclination was to avoid doing so. It’s basically a love story set on a ship due to sink and adds nothing new to the disaster story but the special effects are terrific! The created ‘stage’ and ‘full sized reproduction’ (at vast expense – five or six times what it cost to build the original ship in today’s money) gave a ‘Tonight You Are There’ feeling to the production, and even the love story does not slow the pace down. What it also does is give the audience a feeling of what the size and interiors of a major are really like. As an old shipyard man I was quite at home.

Those of you who have not yet seen the film go and do so soonest. You have quite an experience in front of you. See and enjoy. It is quite likely you won’t see another pic on this disaster until about 2040 AD as there seems to be between forty and forty-five years in each part of the cycle from the disaster (1912) to Night to Remember (1968) and now Titanic 1998.

Looking now at both films taken together I have to say that my personal convictions (prejudices perhaps?) are basically intact, but I have some reservations still. The engine room shown in both films appeared to have more headroom and less restricted space that those that I remember in Harland and Wolff in the 1950s. Were these shot in film sets? I think so, at present what I feel safe of is that the Boiler Room (Oil fired) of those smaller ships of the 1950s were more compact, with less head room that the storeholds (Coal fired) of the ‘Four Stackers’ of the period 1900-30: the Olympic, Britannic, Aquatainia, Mauritania, etc.

I still have to believe that (in each case) the filmmakers went over the top in showing the ship sinking. What I know to be true is that every artist’s illustration of the last period of the ship’s life showed an impossible situation. Despite what is shown in the current film, I still contend that the after half of the vessel is depicted far too high out of the water prior to the breaking of her back. I accept that the last sequence in the new film showing the stern position standing vertically above the surface, after the second keel fracture. I have other quibbles but those are minor.

To close now, both films touch upon the social strata of the period, and the Dream Factory tears these to hell! It was never possible for steerage passengers to do what the hero does in dashing about the Titanic. No passenger on a steamship has ever been allowed forward of the breakwater in the forecastle, and in 1912, would have been brutally repulsed from even Second Class, never mind reaching First Class: ‘Gods Country’. Similarly the heroine would not have been able to reach the stern and ensign Flagstaff to attempt suicide. The ‘dream factory’ ignores facts.

What both films show, but leave the viewer to realise, is that as we nowadays know, the glitterati – and some of the vessels crew – did little to be proud of that night. To be blunt about it – murder was done on the Titanic. There were 708 steerage class passengers, for most of the last one and half-hours the Titanic was afloat they were in a cage in behind locked gates. In the end one steward disobeyed his orders and opened one gate. Just over 200 third class passengers survived. There were 332 first class passengers, and 276 second class passengers a total of 1316. Only one lifeboat of those afloat came back to search for survivors.

We had to wait until Nuremberg in 1945 to see such action classed as a crime; I hope that now the Titanic will be left to Rest in Peace.

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