When James Cameron decided to make a film about the sinking of the Titanic, he wasn’t exactly venturing into uncharted waters. Ever since the disaster struck in 1912, there has been a steady stream of movies depicting the tragedy, including an early “talkie,” an '80s political thriller, and a bizarre animated musical that has to be seen to be believed. So if you’re not a fan of the DiCaprio version, know that plenty of other options are out there.
1. SAVED FROM THE TITANIC (1912)
On April 14, 1912 at 11:40 p.m., the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. During the wee hours of the next morning, she vanished beneath the waves, killing over 1500 people in the process. Then, on May 14 of that very same year, the first in what would become a long line of motion pictures about the disaster was released. That’s right: The first-ever Titanic film came out a mere 29 days after the boat sank!
Produced by Éclair Studios, the picture was called Saved From the Titanic. Today, it’s regarded as a movie of huge historical significance, and not just because of the release date. This film stars Dorothy Gibson, an actress who was saved from the real Titanic. When that vessel started to go under, Gibson was among the 2228 people aboard. Luckily for her, she managed to secure a spot on the very first lifeboat that was lowered into the water. A passing ship called the RMS Carpathia rescued her, along with many other survivors.
Saved From the Titanic is a fictionalization of Gibson’s harrowing experience. For some extra authenticity, she wore the same outfit that she’d donned when the Carpathia found her. Reliving the worst night of her life took an awful toll on Gibson. It was said that she’d often sob uncontrollably during the shoot, and the actress endured a mental breakdown after production wrapped. No known copies of Saved From the Titanic have survived to the present day—although a few promotional photos still exist.
2. IN NACHT UND EIS (1912)
Another silent drama, In Nacht und Eis (“Night Time in the Ice”) was directed by Mime Misu, a former barber. Filmed in northern Germany, the movie premiered at a Berlin theater on August 17, 1912. At 42 minutes from start to finish, In Nacht Und Eis was deemed unusually long by the standards of its period. Back in the early 1910s, most movies had a runtime of 20 minutes or less. Evidently, really long Titanic flicks are nothing new.
For decades, movie historians believed that In Nacht und Eis—like Saved From the Titanic—had been lost to history. But in 1998, two private collectors and a major German film archive all came forward with original copies of Misu’s film. The salvaged footage has since been re-edited into a shortened cut that can be viewed with English subtitles on YouTube.
3. ATLANTIC (1929)
Also known as Disaster in the Atlantic, this was the very first “talkie” to be inspired by the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage. It’s a cinematic adaptation of The Berg, a stage play that had recently opened to rave reviews in West London. Interestingly, while playwright Ernest Raymond extensively researched the Titanic catastrophe for his show, the play never actually mentions this ship by name. The Berg chronicles the final two hours of an unidentified ocean liner that’s just had a lethal run-in with a mass of floating ice. Similarly, the movie version refers to its vessel as the Atlantic. This was likely done at the request of the White Star Line, the British shipping company that had built the Titanic between 1909 and 1911. Still, some newspapers connected the dots anyway, describing the picture as a “Film of the Titanic.”
4. TITANIC (1943)
In 1941, Joseph Goebbels—Adolf Hitler’s Propaganda Minister—decided to create a big-budget film about history’s most famous shipwreck. Of course, it wouldn’t exactly be a faithful retelling. With World War II underway, Goebbels and screenwriter Harald Bratt envisioned this project as a way to smear Germany’s chief adversary: Great Britain. To do so, the script threw accuracy out the window. The movie’s villain is J. Bruce Ismay, an English businessman who’d presided over the White Star Line in real life and was on the Titanic when she sank. However, Goebbels’s film shows him bribing the captain to speed up the ship so that the voyage can set a new Transatlantic passage record. This is pure fiction, wholly unsupported by the evidence, and the only character who ever warns Ismay about the dangers of icebergs is a made-up German officer named Petersen. At the end of the movie, Petersen tries to bring this greedy scoundrel to justice before a board of inquiry. Since the ruling body is 100 percent British, Ismay—naturally—gets off scot-free. Titanic proceeds to hammer in its prejudiced message with a title card at the end of the film that says “The death of 1,500 passengers remains unatoned for, an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit.”
Director Herbert Selpin received a budget that was the equivalent of $155.8 million in modern U.S. money to make the movie. With that generous budget, his team was able to construct a 30-foot model of the doomed ship for the sinking scene. The government also gave Selphin more or less whatever he asked for—including an actual ocean liner that was used in exterior shots. In fact, despite the ongoing war, German soldiers were temporarily taken out of the front lines and utilized as Titanic extras.
Selphin never lived to see his propagandic masterpiece. Once word got out that he’d voiced some unpatriotic remarks, the director was hanged in 1942. Ironically, when Titanic was finished, Goebbels worried that audiences would see it as an anti-Nazi movie. Ismay’s foolhardiness, he feared, might be interpreted as a metaphor for Hitler’s recent military blunders. Ergo, the propaganda minister banned Titanic from German cinemas. (A heavily edited version was subsequently screened in Deutschland during the 1950s.)
5. TITANIC (1953)
An unhappily married couple struggles to settle their differences on the Titanic’s ill-fated trip in this 1953 offering from director Jean Negulesco. Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, the movie mostly consists of fictional characters modeled after real passengers. For the climax, Stanwyck found herself seated on a replica lifeboat that was suspended some 47 feet above a frothing, outdoor tank at the studios of 20th Century Fox. These circumstances really gave her pause. “I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time,” she later said. “We were recreating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great raking sobs and couldn’t stop.” At the 1954 Academy Awards, Titanic received an Oscar for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay).
6. A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958)
When producer William MacQuitty was 6 years old, he watched the RMS Titanic depart from Belfast, where she’d been built. This was an experience he never forgot. In 1956, MacQuitty optioned the movie rights for A Night to Remember, historian Walter Lord’s bestselling book about the ship’s demise. Released in 1958, the completed film recycled some of the sinking footage from Selphin’s picture. Despite this, A Night To Remember was beloved by critics and is sometimes cited as the most historically accurate Titanic movie ever made. While Lord was putting the book together, he interviewed no less than 64 survivors. MacQuitty wisely recruited him as a consultant, and the man’s expertise heavily influenced the final script. Lord would go on to become an advisor for James Cameron’s Titanic decades later.
7. S.O.S. TITANIC (1979)
A made-for-TV movie, S.O.S. Titanic sees Cloris Leachman of Young Frankenstein fame playing the famous Titanic survivor Molly Brown—whom we’ll discuss in more detail shortly. Additionally, Helen Mirren makes an appearance as an Irish chambermaid.
8. RAISE THE TITANIC (1980)
Although he’s a world-famous novelist, very few of Clive Cussler’s books have been turned into films. Here’s why: In 1976, Cussler’s third published book, Raise the Titanic!, made an enormous splash. The thriller spent 22 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, much to the surprise of its author. “I was dumbfounded,” Cussler recalled, “It was such a far-out idea—raising the Titanic—that I thought nobody would buy it. I didn’t realize what a fascination so many people have with that grand old ship.”
The plot revolves around a rare, fictional mineral called byzanium, which can be used to build a revolutionary new anti-missile defense system. Suspecting that a treasure trove of this material was stored on the Titanic when she sank, America’s government hatches a wild plot to recover the bounty by lifting the entire vessel out of her watery grave.
ITC Entertainment swooped in to secure the movie rights, but before shooting started, the movie ran into some behind-the-scenes trouble courtesy of its star attraction: the Titanic itself. A 55-foot, 11-ton scale model of the famed ocean liner was meticulously constructed at a cost of $5 million. On top of that, the effects team built a $3.3 million tank in which to film their colossal miniature. Additionally, certain scenes featured a retired cruise ship, which had to be heavily modified so that it could pass for the real Titanic. Expenses like these put the film massively over-budget and its final price tag ended up exceeding that of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back. Alas, that spared-no-expense mentality didn’t result in much box office success. Raise the Titanic became one of 1980’s most notorious bombs, earning an abysmal $7 million in the U.S. Moreover, Cussler was infuriated by the film’s numerous departures from its source material. As such, he didn’t allow any of his other novels to become motion pictures until Sahara got the Hollywood treatment in 2005.
On a different note, you’ll notice that Raise the Titanic shows the eponymous vessel ascending towards the surface in one piece. Those who saw the boat sink gave conflicting reports about whether or not it had broken in two before submerging. Some eyewitnesses swore that the Titanic more or less descended intact, others disagreed. This debate was settled in 1985, when the wreck was discovered by a French-American team. We now know that the stern indeed broke off from the prow—although the separation probably bore little resemblance to what we see in Cameron’s Titanic.
THE CHAMBERMAID ON THE TITANIC
Adapted from a novel by Didier Decoin, Chambermaid is about a poor French foundry worker who wins an annual coal-toting contest. The grand prize? A trip to watch the RMS Titanic depart from Southampton, England on her first—and last—voyage. The night before, he meets an enchanting chambermaid who’s scheduled to depart with the ship.
10. TITANIC: THE LEGEND GOES ON (2001)
Rapping dogs, anyone? This Italian-made animated musical follows a family of mice who hitch a ride to America aboard the Titanic, where they eavesdrop on some kindly humans. Like many films on this list, Titanic: The Legend Goes On includes a romantic subplot. But, uniquely, it also comes with a shaggy canine who, at one point, grabs a boom-box and starts freestyling like a ‘90s hip-hop artist. We are dead serious about this. Incidentally, the year 2001 saw the release of yet another animated Titanic movie—one which posits that the boat really sank because some evil sharks tricked a Godzilla-sized octopus into hurling an iceberg at it.
11. TITANIC II (2010)
Set 100 years after the iconic ship sank (ie: 2012), Titanic II tracks the journey of a luxury cruise liner whose name gives the movie its title. Just as you’d expect, disaster strikes, though it is worth noting that a tsunami is what does this particular vessel in. Titanic II was created by The Asylum, an independent production company best known for its 2013 surprise smash, Sharknado.
BONUS: THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN (1964)
Although the Titanic doesn’t play a huge role in this MGM movie musical, it warrants a mention anyway. Based on a Broadway show of the same name, the film depicts the life and times of Margaret Brown (1867-1932), an American socialite and women’s suffrage advocate.
In 1912, she took a vacation through Rome, Paris, and Egypt, accompanied all the way by her daughter, Helen. The trip was spoiled when Brown learned that her grandson had grown ill back home. While Helen stayed behind in London, Margaret took the next available stateside ship: The RMS Titanic. One night on the open ocean, she was abruptly thrown out of her bed by some violent collision. Brown was soon informed that the vessel had run into an iceberg and was told to grab a lifesaver. Fortunately for her, she received a seat on life boat number six, along with 23 other passengers.
At roughly 4:30 a.m. on April 15, rescue came when Brown and her companions were hauled onto the Carpathia. Once aboard, she started combing the ship for blankets to help cover those who lay shivering on the floors. Realizing that many survivors had lost everything when the Titanic went down, Brown also convinced her fellow first-class passengers to set aside some money on behalf of their less-fortunate counterparts. By the time the Carpathia docked in New York City, $10,000 had been raised for these needy travelers. Word of Brown’s heroism spread, turning her into a national hero. From Denver gossip columnist Polly Pry, she received a catchy nickname: “the unsinkable Molly Brown.”