James Cameron’s Titanic is the best-known adaptation of the Titanic tragedy, but it was first released a month after the sinking.
by James Cameron Titanic is the most famous and successful film about the real-life Titanic tragedy, but the very first film about it was released a month after the sinking of the ship, featured one of the survivors and is now a lost film. James Cameron is now synonymous with big budget productions, mostly in the science fiction genre, but one of his most important and successful films belonged to a very different genre: Titanica disaster drama released in 1997 that was at the time the most expensive film ever made.
Although based on tales of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912, Cameron’s film tells the fictional story of Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), two passengers from opposite social classes who fall lovers aboard the ship on her ill-fated maiden voyage. Jack and Rose were not based on actual Titanic passengers, but through them many characters based on real people were introduced, such as Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and Captain Smith (Bernard Hill), and while the sinking of the Titanic actually happened, the film took many creative liberties. Still, Titanic won numerous awards, is still considered one of the best films of the 1990s, and it’s the best-known film adaptation of the tragedy on the ship, but it’s certainly not the only one.
The very first movie about the sinking of the Titanic was released on May 16, 1912, just a month after the tragedy. Title Rescued from the Titanic, this silent short film was directed by Étienne Arnaud and written by Dorothy Gibson, an American actress who also survived the Titanic. Gibson, along with his mother, was one of 28 people who boarded the first lifeboat launched from the Titanic and were rescued hours later. As soon as she arrived in New York, Gibson’s manager convinced her to appear in a film based on the sinking of the ship, and so she wrote and starred in Rescued from the Titanicwhere she played a fictionalized version of herself. Rescued from the Titanic saw Gibson tell the story of the sinking to his (fictional) parents and fiancé, with archival footage of icebergs, Captain Smith and the Titanic Olympic’s sister ship here and there.
Gibson even wore the same clothes she wore the night of the Titanic tragedy to add to the film’s authenticity, and while Rescued from the Titanic was a critical success, it did Gibson no good. While Gibson’s performance was praised, the film’s production was criticized for taking advantage of the tragedy so soon after it happened, and making the film so close to the event had an impact on Gibson. Rescued from the Titanic was Gibson’s last film, as its direction caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown, and the film itself also had a tragic ending. The only known prints of it were destroyed in a fire at Éclair Studios in 1914, and the only surviving evidence of it are a few production photos printed in the Moving Picture News and world of cinema. The loss of Rescued from the Titanic is considered by historians to be significant as the film is notable for playing a Titanic survivor playing herself and wearing the same clothes she wore when the ship sank.
The film industry has been relentlessly criticized for profiting from a number of real-life tragedies and wasted no time in bringing heavily dramatized versions of them to the big screen, but as seen with Rescued from the Titanic, it is not a modern “practice”. However, in the end, Rescued from the Titanic is a piece of history (both general history and film history) which has unfortunately been lost like many other works from the silent era.
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