11 Titanic Movie Moments Tested Against History

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons

One hundred and one years ago yesterday, the Titanic set sail for America. Although the ship never made it across the Atlantic, it’s an event that has been talked about, studied and made into a major motion picture. In James Cameron’s 1997 film of the same name, the director with a mind for perfection did his research. But did everything in the movie match up with history? Here, we pit Hollywood against history in 11 moments from the film. 

1. J. Dawson

Cameron said he didn’t realize there was actually a “J. Dawson" aboard the real Titanic until after he finished his screenplay. Some folklorists claim the “J” stands for James, but a family member in Dublin identified the man as Joseph. At 23, Joseph found his way onto the ship, channeling coal to the firemen at the furnaces. Papers reveal that he was off-duty when the ship struck the iceberg, but Dawson was quick to find his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card before being ushered to the deck after all the boats had run out. After being recovered from the wreckage, his card identified him. Joseph Dawson is buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

2. The Heart of the Ocean

It wasn't a blue diamond, heart-shaped, previously owned by Louis XVI, or even called the Heart of the Ocean for that matter. But there was a necklace with a simple sapphire aboard the ship, now referred to as the Love of the Sea, worn by then-19-year-old Kate Florence Phillips. Kate planned to elope with Henry Morley—a man 20 years her senior, owner of a shop she worked in, and married—but because of the dearth of lifeboats, Henry died. 

3. John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor didn't perish during the sinking of the Titanic—his great-grandson, John Jacob Astor IV, did. Even after he briefly inspected, Astor didn't think the ship was in much trouble and ridiculed the idea of loading into life boats. "We are safer here than in that little lifeboat," he reportedly said. But at around 1:45 a.m., he changed his mind about the situation. Astor wasn't allowed into a lifeboat because of the women-and-children-first rule. His body was recovered Monday, April 22. 

4. "That is White Star property. You will have to pay for that."

The quote probably got a few chuckles during a serious moment, but the Titanic steward who actually said those words said he didn't know the ship was sinking at the time. Tennis pro Richard Williams said he happened upon the steward who was stuck, trying to pry a door open to another cabin when Williams rammed the door in to help him. Instead of a thanks, the steward threatened to report him for destroying White Star property. White Star furnished much of the ship's furnishings.

5. The Renault car

Everyone remembers the literally steamy love scene with Rose and Jack in the infamous Renault car. Well, maybe Rose and Jack—or anybody for all anyone knows—didn't get down in that back seat, but the 25 horsepower Renault automobile really was on board. The cargo manifest, however, reveals that it may not ever had been assembled and was actually just in a case.

6. Officer Lowe returned

In the film, Fifth Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe is seen rescuing Rose from the icy Atlantic waters. In real life, Officer Lowe really did return in a lifeboat to find survivors. But his heroic actions are often met with criticism because he waited for survivors' cries to wane down before he ushered the lifeboat to rescue. He was fearful that the boat would be swamped by a mass number of people. His lifeboat picked up only four survivors.

7. The split

James Cameron has been pretty open with the fact that he took a guess at how Titanic actually sank, but that doesn't mean he isn't interested in finding out the truth. In a 2012 documentary that aired on the National Geographic channel, which included information from recent studies about the ship, he reveals that the back end of Titanic only reached 23 degrees, far less than depicted in the 1997 film.

8. Pablo Picasso paintings

Toward the beginning of the film, Rose is shown hanging up various paintings, some by Pablo Picasso, who at the time of maiden voyage would have been barely known. None of his paintings were on the ship. The artwork depicted in the film, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, actually sits in New York City's Musem of Modern Art. Its inclusion in the film sparked complaints from the Picasso estate both when the film was released in 1997 and during its 3D re-release in 2012.

9. Iceberg pieces on deck

Rose and Jack experienced the reality of the iceberg when chunks fell onto the promenade deck. But was that something Cameron added for dramatic effect? Nope. Helen Churchill Candee, on her way to America to be with her son who was in an accident, found herself dealing with an accident of her own. After striking the iceberg she said, "The first thing I recall was one of the crew appearing with pieces of ice in his hands. He said he had gathered them from the bow of the boat." Hers is just one of many accounts of ice on the deck.

10. The band played on

As soon as it became apparent that the ship was going to sink, bandleader and violinist Wallace Henry Hartley gathered his eight-man team to play ragtime and waltzes as the ship went down. As depicted in the film, the band wanted to calm passengers who were piling into lifeboats and coming to terms with reality. Before boarding Titanic, Hartley said if he were ever on a sinking ship, he would play either "Nearer My God to Thee" or "O God Our Help in Ages Past." Several survivors and newspapers reported that the last song to be played was the former.

11. Star Alignment

Cameron has said this is the only thing he changed for 2012’s re-release of the film in 3D. For a perfectionist like Cameron, he said he was irked to find out that during the scene after the ship goes down, the position of the stars isn’t right for 4:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912. Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson is the man responsible for correcting Hollywood’s notoriously crotchety director.