Filmgoers love that sinking feeling

The famous catastrophe is often revisited on screen, with varying success.
The plot possibilities are endless,
but the final product sometimes sinks like a stone.

Times Film Critic

It's easy to provide a synopsis covering most movies that have recreated the Titanic disaster:

A collection of famous actors board a supposedly invincible ship. Some fall in love, others contemplate their mistakes in life, a couple of passengers have crime on their minds, and the ship sinks.

The main reason so many films have addressed this topic is the same reason they're typically disappointing: Audiences mostly pay to see how the special effects wizards will make the Titanic sinking seem real.

If that sinking occurs too soon, no story remains for feature-film entertainment. If a director spends too much time on the human conditions, moviegoers start drumming their fingers, waiting for the glub-glub sounds. A recent Discovery Channel special proved that the tales of Titanic survivors can make a fascinating documentary, but filmmakers haven't figured out how to transfer that sort of drama to the silver screen.

Director James Cameron seems to be trying with his mega-budget film Titanic, scheduled to debut nationwide in mid-December after its summer release was delayed.

Preview trailers indicate a subplot in which an elderly survivor of the disaster returns to the site with fortune explorers led by Bill Paxton (Twister). That trip leads to an extended flashback in which Kate Winslet's character falls in love during the ill-fated voyage with a lower-class hunk, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Those previews also hint that Cameron's version of the disaster will be monumental, and certainly in line with the film's reported budget of $200-million, making it one of the most expensive films ever produced. You'd think Cameron could buy a different title with that sort of money, since the name Titanic was used in two previous films.

One of the most striking sights in the preview is a vertigo-inducing shot of Winslet and DiCaprio clinging to each other against the forces of gravity as the sinking ship takes a 45-degree angle to the ocean. If Cameron develops a storyline to match that thrilling vision, Titanic will be something to see. Finally.

Until then, you can take a video voyage on the Titanic by checking movie-store shelves or cable television listings for the following six films:

Titanic (1953) -- Barbara Stanwyck played an immigrant mother escaping a bad husband (Clifton Webb) for a new life in America, but she winds up on the wrong boat. This is the most highly acclaimed version of the 1912 tragedy, winning an Academy Award for best screenplay. Also nominated that year for art direction (including a 20-foot model of the ship used for the big finale). The obligatory big-name cast featured Robert Wagner, Richard Basehart, Thelma Ritter and Brian Aherne.

A Night to Remember (1958) -- This film version of the Titanic disaster was based on the novel of the same title by Walter Lord. In its day, British releases were considered foreign properties, so the film was nominated for an Academy Award and Golden Globe as best foreign film and made the top 5 list of foreign films honored by the National Board of review. David McCallum (Ilya Kuryakin on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. years later) and future James Bond babe Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) toplined the cast.

One note: Kraft Television Theater also turned Lord's novel into a 1956 teleplay that was so popular that it was re-broadcast only five weeks later. That version is not available on home video.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) -- Debbie Reynolds had one of the best roles of her career as a backwoods girl who becomes a woman of high society and even survives the Titanic, thanks to her spunkiness. Based on the Broadway musical by Meredith Willson (The Music Man). The Titanic incident occupied only a minor portion of screen time, but Reynolds' effervescent portrayal makes it worth a look any time. Nominated for six Academy Awards, including best actress, and five technical achievements.

S.O.S. Titanic (1979) -- Fairly entertaining TV-movie version of the disaster, with a faux documentary feel that was undermined by all of the famous television stars in the cast, including David Janssen, Susan St. James and Cloris Leachman, whose career never again reached the heights of The Last Picture Show. British actors David Warner (The Omen) and Helen Mirren (The Madness of King George) added a continental touch.

Raise the Titanic (1980) -- Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch, since it's a fantasy about the Titanic emerging from its watery grave 70 years later, with the fate of the free world on the line. Oscar winners Jason Robards and Alec Guinness were roped into this project somehow. Based on a bestseller by Clive Cussler, it sank at the box office faster than . . . you know.

Titanic (1996) -- This elaborately dull NBC telefilm earned solid Nielsen ratings for part one, but ratings severely dropped for part two, indicating that audiences weren't interested enough to stick around for the special effects. George C. Scott played it cranky and proud as the ship's captain on his final voyage before retirement. The usual subplots provided paychecks to such actors as Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping), Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and sitcom darling Marilu Henner. If the ship didn't sink, everybody would have jumped overboard anyway.

In addition to these films, the Titanic has made a cameo appearance in at least four other films or television programs. Noel Coward's Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1932) included newlyweds on a ship's deck. When they move away, a Titanic life preserver can be seen. The premiere of the sci-fi series The Time Tunnel sent stars James Darren and Robert Colbert back to the fateful voyage. Lady Bellamy of the PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs was killed in the tragedy. One of the time-travel stops made by the Time Bandits of Terry Gilliam's 1981 fantasy was aboard the ship, and the vessel made a trip down Manhattan streets in Ghostbusters II.

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