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THOMAS: In actual Titanic disaster, the powerful sacrificed for powerless

Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Here, where Titanic, the massive White Star Line luxury liner, was built -- the joke for years has been, "It was fine when it left here." This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship "Not even God himself could sink ..." and the centenary is being observed in diverse ways.There are solemn remembrances. A "Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic" is scheduled for St. Anne's Cathedral and there's a Titanic Commemoration Service and Unveiling of the Titanic Memorial Gardens at City Hall.

Elsewhere, the government and entrepreneurs are seeking to make a profit. The Titanic Belfast visitor attraction opened March 31 and is sold out through April 16. MTV UK is staging a "Titanic Sounds" event, which it is billing as "the biggest party in the world." A party about a tragedy; how modern.

In America, where Titanic was headed when it sank April 15, 1912, about 960 miles northeast of New York City, James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster film "Titanic" is being re-released in 3-D. The film gives us the fictional romance between "Rose" and "Jack" and, as generally agreed, even by Cameron himself, a host of historical inaccuracies that may be all a generation of young people will learn about the ill-fated ship and its tragic maiden voyage.

The 1953 film, "Titanic," starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, also contained historical inaccuracies and fabricated scenarios, as did the 1958 film "A Night to Remember," another Hollywood interpretation of the tragic sinking.

The true story of the Titanic, however, is quite different and as far as I know has never been told in a feature film. In Cameron's version, he depicts the wealthy as asserting their privilege over third-class passengers and crew so they could escape in lifeboats not made available to all, a depiction that plays on issues of class warfare and social inequality.

In many cases, the opposite was true, according to documented historical accounts that include real-life examples of rich passengers coming to the aid of the less fortunate. Writing in the March issue of the Christian publication, "Tabletalk," Harry L. Reeder, a Presbyterian minister in Birmingham, Ala., cites one such example of the selflessness of the rich and their sacrifices for the "lower classes." Reeder laments the missed opportunity by filmmakers to tell a far more dramatic and compelling story, the real story of the Titanic.

Reeder muses on the "amazing event" chronicled in historic accounts, in which, "Men of power and prestige sacrificed their lives for women and children of the lower class, many of whom were indentured servants, day laborers, and domestic workers. On this flotilla of self-absorption, self-sacrifice became a prevailing virtue during a crisis moment, and the powerful chose death that the powerless might receive life."

Reeder asks "Why?" and answers his own question: "... the undeniable influence of Christianity. The Christian virtue of self-sacrifice for the well-being of others and the biblical imperative for men to lay down their lives for women and children were chosen instead of self-preservation."

Other ships have sunk with great loss of life. The Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, killing more than 1,100 with nearly 800 surviving, but that ship went down in just 18 minutes, while the Titanic took almost three hours to slip beneath the waters of the North Atlantic, thus giving the Titanic more time for real, as well as manufactured, drama.

Since its demise, Titanic's name has become a brand. Souvenir T-shirts and other tacky memorabilia are for sale. USA Today reports a $5 bill salvaged from the wreckage is up for auction. The reality, though, is that more than 1,500 people died when the ship sank. Branches of family trees were severed. Parents were lost to children and children who were lost never lived to be parents themselves.

Titanic was a monument to the glory and presumed omnipotence of human ingenuity, which was also destroyed. In Titanic's demise, acts of self-sacrifice that shattered stereotypes about "the rich" were revealed. Those stories would have made for a better film than the ones made. Though, to borrow from the Cameron film's title song, their stories will "go on."

Email nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at tmseditors@tribune.com. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/calthomas.