This week, James Cameron’s 1996 blockbuster, Titanic, is going to be re-released in theaters to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Given how popular it was fifteen years ago, I can only imagine that many people will be seeing it again and a whole group of teenagers will be seeing it for the first time. But if you, or someone you know, is going to see the movie, Titanic, it’s important that you remember two things.
First, you need to remember that the movie can entertain, but not teach. For some, Cameron’s Titanic will be the definitive history of the 1912 sinking. However, the film is woefully inaccurate when it comes to the history of the event. Though the impressive special effects give it all an air of realism, the real flaw lies in the characters of the film. Here’s a good summary of the kinds of revisionism I’m talking about, courtesy of a review in the New York Times:
Of the many differences between the movie ”Titanic” and history, one in particular is telling. In the movie, as the ship is sinking the first-class passengers (all third-class human beings) scramble to climb into the small number of life-boats. Only the determination of the hardy seamen — who use guns to keep the grasping men at bay — gets the women and children into the boats.
In fact, according to survivors’ accounts, the ”women and children first” convention was observed with almost no dissension, particularly among the upper classes. The statistics make this plain. In first class, every child was saved, as were all but five (of 144) women, three of whom chose to die with their husbands. By contrast, 70 percent of the men perished. In second class, 80 percent of the women were saved but 90 percent of the men drowned.
The men on the first-class list of the Titanic virtually made up the Forbes 400 of the time. John Jacob Astor, reputedly the richest man of his day, is said to have fought his way to a boat, put his wife in it and then stepped back and waved her goodbye. Benjamin Guggenheim similarly refused to take a seat, saying: ”Tell my wife . . . I played the game out straight and to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward.” In other words, some of the most powerful men in the world adhered to an unwritten code of honor — even though it meant certain death for them. The movie makers altered the story for good reason: no one would believe it today.
So, why is history so important? After all, isn’t this just a movie? Yes, it is but historical accuracy is inherently important for the Christian as Christianity is utterly dependent on history. Unlike other religions where the teaching is important apart from real events, the Christian faith is lost without real events. If there is no Adam and Eve, no Mount Sinai, no King David, no cross and resurrection, then there is no Christianity (Romans 1-5; 1 Corinthians 15). More specifically, there were many Christians on board the real HMS Titanic and they don’t come off looking very good in Cameron’s film. This is a shame because the historical reality is that, at least some of those Christians were courageous and worth imitating (e.g., John Harper).
Second, if you’re going to see Titanic, remember that Jack and Rose are examples to avoid, not heroes to embrace. The two main character are no better than everyday sinners who let their lusts drive their actions. That may seem harsh but it’s meant to be a bucket of cold water on our faces. The film portrays Jack and Rose as heroes bucking against the trends of the day, even family, to find happiness in each other. In fact, this is really the story that drives the film. Cameron has twisted history to advance his doomed romance meant to grab our hearts. And if we’re not careful, as Christians, we end up cheering for them in their sin. Fornication, rebellion, and pride are all evident in their behavior, but do we see that? Do we see their sin for what it is or have we been so drawn into the narrative of the film that we lose sight of our moral bearings, turning what is evil into good? Do we admire something God despises? This is important for us because if we don’t flinch at their sin, we will likely not flinch at our own sin. Like Jack and Rose, we are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Whether it’s in our lives or the lives of others, sin should always cause us to weep, as we remember what it really is–that which sent Christ to the cross on our behalf.
So, am I telling you not to see Titanic? No. I won’t be seeing the film (preferring this more reliable one instead), but this post isn’t about telling you which movies you should and should not see. This post is not even about the evils of film. Instead, it’s about the power of film. Given the talented hands of a good director and actors, reality and can be reshaped into the image of the filmmakers. But as Christians, we do not have the luxury of just turning off our worldview and engaging in mindless enjoyment–that’s the devil’s playground. Especially with movies, we have to be asking question like: How are good and evil portrayed? How does the cinematography effect our perception of the events and characters? Does the story of the film openly contradict or subtly undermine a biblical vision of reality? If we aren’t careful, we allow truth to become fiction and fiction, truth. Worse yet, we allow evil to be counted as good and good as evil. Without discernment, we can allow our minds and hearts to be molded to the sinful whims of this age rather than being lifted out of the culture around us, being renewed in our thinking as God’s people, so that we can lives lives of worship before him (Rom 12:1-2).
So, regardless of which movies you see this summer, as the lights go down and you begin to munch your popcorn, remember to turn off your cellphone, turn on your mind, and let the discernment begin.