Titanic vs Saving Private Ryan - Yearning vs. Dread

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Having recently seen Spielberg's new WWII combat film, "Saving Private Ryan", I was struck by the contrasting perspectives Cameron and Spielberg took on their respective historical subjects/tragedies. Both films share, in part, a similar concept, that is to convey to the viewer the meaning, in human terms, of a real event using fictional characters and situations within an historically precise setting. Re-thinking my previous misgivings about the balance between fiction and fact in Titanic, I have finally come to the conclusion that Cameron made exactly the right choice in tone.

What I had felt I was missing in "Titanic" was a greater sense of dread. There is no scene in "Titanic" that creates an anxiety comparable to, say, the approach of the German tanks before the final battle scene in "Saving Private Ryan". We don't get much feeling for what the passengers of Titanic were really going through in comparison. "Titanic" is too suffused with nostalgia - something Spielberg definitely was not going for in his movie. But would it have been possible for Cameron to create this sense of dread with such a well-known disaster and such circumscribed possibilities? I don't think so. "Titanic" would have failed, as predicted, if he had tried.

While Spielberg grounds his perspective completely in 1944, stripping away all subsequent preconceptions, Cameron presents the Titanic disaster from today's perspective, telegraphing the entire story - with one exception. We know the ship sinks, we know Rose lives, we know Jack dies. What we don't know (the first time, obviously) is the depth of Rose's yearning - represented by the diamond. What seems superficially to be a lame plot device at first, becomes the heart of the story; that is Lovett's and Cal's yearning for the diamond as an object of wealth and power contrasted with Rose's deeper understanding of its symbolic value. It's not that profound or original a story, but effective nonetheless. Even Cameron's depiction of the ship itself creates a sense of nostalgia - strange since he seemed to be using it as a metaphor for social values he was arguing against. What better way to pack the theater with repeat viewers? You won't find many people who have seen SPR twice.

With "Titanic", Cameron has out-Spielberg-ed Spielberg. But only because Spielberg, with "Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" at least, is now aiming higher. Despite Spielberg's greater visceral achievement, "Titanic" will be remembered far after "Saving Private Ryan" has been forgotten. Hell, "The Longest Day" will too - out of nostalgia.

-- Dan Dalton (foo@bar.com), August 05, 1998


Well, well, well...Now who's being...analytical. :) Good job. You obviously put some time into that. I'd like to respond at length, but my eyes are getting ruined from using the computer too much (someone at work commented how red one was), so can't now. I'll quickly say, though: I felt very sad during the water scenes toward the end of "Titanic", and definitely couldn't restrain the tears by the time the crewman is waving his flare at the Carpathia, during many of my viewings. In SPR, I also had tears on various occasions, and don't remember having them so early in any other movie. I definitely felt I experienced the pain of the passengers in "Titanic" more so than in any other Titanic film. But those first 30 minutes in SPR were very graphic and realistic, and, yes, are something I don't care to see again. In many ways SPR was like "Schindler's List" - documentary-like. It got its point across that war is hell. But Titanic had me thinking about many different things, and inspired me to learn the history. SPR (which I give a 9/10) made me appreciate how fellow Americans have sacrificed. Many elements keep me glued to Titanic, though, including the diamond subplot, flashback aspect, special effects, visual beauty ("this room needs more color"), cinematography, music..right down the Oscar list. As I watched "Shall We Dance" tonight on video (Japanese with subtitles), I was reminded of the dancing at the steerage party. For me, Titanic had it all. As if I haven't said that a million times.

-- BobG (rgregorio@ibm.net), August 05, 1998.

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