One hundred years since the luxury liner that was supposed to be unsinkable sunk to the depths of the north Atlantic after hitting an iceberg, the Titanic hasn't lost its power to fascinate us, which is why there will be a flurry of films and TV specials commemorating the centennial. James Cameron's Oscar-winning 1997 blockbuster "Titanic" has returned to theaters in 3-D and IMAX, and "Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron," in which the director assembles a panel of experts to analyze the disaster, will premiere on April 8 from 8-10 p.m. on National Geographic Channel.
Then at 10 p.m. on Nat Geo, "Save the Titanic with Bob Ballard" follows the man who discovered the Titanic's wreck in 1985 as Ballard (pictured below) travels to the Belfast shipyards (where the liner was built) to meet descendants of the engineers, and speaks out about the deterioration of this historic underwater gravesite. "It's at greater risk than it's ever been before," Ballard tells MNN, blaming explorers in "clumsy" submarines and civilians' ability to visit the site. "Before now, only the governments of Japan, the United States, Russia and France could go to the Titanic. With these new robotic technologies, anyone can get down there. So it's a race against time," says Ballard, hoping the four countries will adopt a treaty to protect the wreck. You don't go to Gettysburg with a shovel. You don't take belt buckles off the Arizona," he points out, adding that there's no need to physically visit the shipwreck in a sub when the technology exists to take robotic cameras in for a far closer look, one that doesn't disturb the area. Nat Geo will also re-air the 2008 special "Titanic: Ballard's Secret Mission" on April 7 at 10 p.m.
PBS marks the historic anniversary with "Saving the Titanic," a special that employs re-enactments to depict what happened below decks in the engine and boiler rooms following the collision, chronicling the efforts of the engineering crew to keep the ship's power systems running as long as possible and thereby save many lives. It will be shown April 6 at 10:30 p.m., April 10 at 9 p.m. and April 14 at 9 p.m. Also on PBS, "Dancing with the Stars" judge Len Goodman, who was a welder at Harland and Woolf, the company that built the Titanic, before he became a ballroom dancer, explores personal stories of victims and survivors among the passengers and crew in "The Titanic with Len Goodman," premiering April 10 at 8 p.m. and repeating April 13 at 10 p.m. and April 14 at 8 p.m.
History Channel maps the wreck site, interviews experts, and employs a "virtual hangar" to reassemble the doomed ship and uncover who and what was responsible for her demise in "Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved," a two-hour special airing April 15 from 8-10 p.m. Another two-hour documentary, Smithsonian Channel's "Titanic's Final Mystery," presents facts and new theories about why the ship sank. Premiering April 5 at 8 p.m., it will repeat numerous times prior to the April 14 anniversary.
"A Night to Remember," the 1958 black-and-white film about the Titanic, is now available in a DVD and Blu-ray release, as is "Titanic," a lesser-known dramatization starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. And ABC will commemorate the 100th anniversary with "Titanic," a four-hour miniseries premiering on the date of the fateful collision, airing its first three hours from 8-11 p.m. on April 14 and concluding 9-10 p.m. on April 15. Written by Julian Fellowes ("Downton Abbey"), the movie blends real and fictional characters to tell the story of what happened to the ship and those who took that fateful maiden voyage.
"James Cameron staked the claim for feature film territory, but there was room to develop something distinctive for television, from a character perspective rather than an effects perspective, although we don't shy away from sinking the boat," says producer Simon Vaughan, noting that the $17-18 million production took advantage of visual effects techniques Cameron developed to replicate water via CGI.
Shot in landlocked Hungary in a 100-square-foot tank and on the largest soundstage at Stern Studios, the production created a 200-foot-long, two-deck-high section of the ship that was cleverly repurposed: "We'd shoot both the port and the starboard sides by turning certain details around and re-dressing it to give a sense that you're in different parts of the ship. From the decks you'd walk into real rooms, the dining room and various cabins," Vaughan explains, adding that the set and tank are still standing and available for use by future productions. Costumes were rented, props were sold after use, and other green practices were in place including use of recycled paper, fuel-efficient transportation and recycling of waste.
Fellowes uses a structure that weaves several story arcs and goes back and fills in information about the characters in them in each of the four hours. "It's not a spoon-fed version. But the overall impact is unusual and works very well," says Vaughan, noting that various factors that converged to cause the sinking are highlighted. "If it hadn't been such a calm night they would have seen the waves at the base of an iceberg. There's the type of steel that they used and the number of compartments, and some of the corners that were cut in terms of the number of lifeboats that were on board and the fact that they changed crews just before leaving Southampton. They may not have had a complete understanding of where things were on board including the binoculars. A number of small factors together added up to a huge disaster."
Vaughan, whose next project is "Ripper Street," a BBC/BBC America police procedural set in London at the time of Jack the Ripper — another iconic touchstone of deadly history — has his own theory about why the Titanic still captivates. "I think in some ways Titanic was the Twin Towers of the previous century. It's a disaster on an epic scale that resonated around the world and still continues to resonate today. There's an insatiable appetite for all things Titanic."
Bob Ballard has his own hypothesis. "The Titanic is us, our society. There were heroes, and villains. You watch and think, 'Who would I be?'" When asked his own question, he responds by explaining, "The captain's orders to the crew were interpreted differently on both sides of the ship. On the port side of the ship the officers in charge of launching the lifeboats thought the captain said 'women and children only.' The officers on the starboard side interpreted it as 'women and children first.' I'd go to the starboard side."