James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic is still to this day one of the biggest movies of all time. The love story between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose captivated audiences, and the special effects required to recreate the infamous boat disaster were like nothing anyone had seen before. In the end the filmmakers walked away with a whopping 11 Academy Awards for the film, including Best Picture. But there’s always been one little thing that has bugged people about Titanic, specifically the ending… and now Cameron has spoken up about it.
Titanic tells the true-to-life story of the ocean liner RMS Titanic. The ship sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing more than 1,500 people. Many of these were poorer, third-class travelers, left to die due to the lack of lifeboats on the ship. Titanic follows the journeys of two passengers: Rose, a young aristocrat, and Jack, an impoverished artist. They fall in love but are kept apart due to their differences in class. In the end, Jack dies in the sinking but Rose lives.
The making of Titanic was almost as big an undertaking as the creation of the original ship. Everything had to be perfect, down to the smallest detail, and Cameron’s intensity in making his movie had a detrimental effect on his cast. “There were times when I was genuinely frightened of him. Jim has a temper like you wouldn’t believe,” Kate Winslet told The Times in 2008.
That temper infuriated people so much that at one point, an actual crime took place on set. A disgruntled crew member, who was never found or identified, laced Cameron’s soup with the drug PCP. This ended up sending 50 people, including Cameron, to the hospital. That wasn’t even the last of the production’s problems. Shooting dragged on for more than a month longer than planned, and the costs shot up to $200 million.
Yet when the film reached cinemas in 1997, it was immediately a massive success. “It is flawlessly crafted, intelligently constructed, strongly acted, and spellbinding,” famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time. “Movies like this are not merely difficult to make at all, but almost impossible to make well.”
For a good long while, it was the highest-grossing movie of all time. It was only surpassed by Avatar – another James Cameron film – in 2010. There was no doubt that people loved it. But they did have one major qualm about it. It focused around the manner in which Jack died. His death, fans of the film insisted, could easily have been prevented.
In the climactic scene of the film, Jack and Rose are left floundering in the freezing waters of the Atlantic. As hundreds of people panic and drown around them, the pair find a door from the ship floating in the water. Jack helps Rose onto it, but the door won’t hold him too. Exposed to the ice cold, he shortly afterwards dies of hypothermia, while Rose survives thanks to his sacrifice.
Jack’s death scene has been the topic of debate for a long time. Even Mythbusters took it on in 2012. It concluded in the end that Jack could have gotten onto the door and survived, but only if he’d tied Rose’s life jacket underneath it first. Surely he’d never have thought of that, in the middle of such a terrifying scenario? Nevertheless, the Mythbusters deemed it “plausible” that both lovers could have made it out of the water.
James Cameron also appeared in that episode to give his thoughts. They were meant in good humor, but nonetheless they were firm. “I think you guys are missing the point here. The script says Jack died. He has to die,” he said. “So maybe we screwed up and the board should have been a little tiny bit smaller, but the dude’s goin’ down.”
But in November 2017 Cameron was asked the question again, by Vanity Fair. And this time, there was less good humor. Jack had died, he said, simply because he had had to, and questions of science had never factored into it. “I think it’s all kind of silly, really, that we’re having this discussion 20 years later,” Cameron said. Perhaps that famous temper was flaring up a little.
“But it does show that the film was effective in making Jack so endearing to the audience that it hurts them to see him die,” Cameron conceded. And indeed it was – when Titanic first came out, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Jack catapulted him into megastar status. Cameron went on to reiterate what he’d once said to the Mythbusters.
“Whether it was [the hypothermia], or whether a smoke stack fell on him, he was going down. It’s called art, things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons,” Cameron said. (Another character in the film, Jack’s best friend Fabrizio, was the one who got the smoke stack in the end.) The Vanity Fair interviewer pressed Cameron a little more. “Well, you’re usually such a stickler for physics…”
“I am,” Cameron said. “I was in the water with the piece of wood putting people on it for about two days getting it exactly buoyant enough so that it would support one person with full free-board, meaning that she wasn’t immersed at all in the 28 degree water so that she could survive the three hours it took until the rescue ship got there.”
This – all of Jack’s death scene, in fact – is actually true to life. On that night in 1912, hundreds of Titanic passengers were left in the water from about 2:20 a.m. until after 4:10 a.m., when efforts finally were made to rescue them. Fifth Officer Lowe, like in the film, returned to the site of the sinking with a lifeboat. But he was much too late.
Most people had died from hypothermia, some others from heart attacks. The scale of the disaster was staggering to the lifeboat survivors who witnessed it. Survivor Lawrence Beesley would later write in a 1912 memoir, “No one in any of the boats standing off a few hundred yards away can have escaped the paralysing shock of knowing that so short a distance away a tragedy, unbelievable in its magnitude, was being enacted, which we, helpless, could in no way avert or diminish.”
And indeed, some people used debris from the ship as emergency flotation devices. But few of them were as lucky as Rose was in the movie. Although the exact number is disputed, fewer than ten people were pulled from the water into the lifeboats after the sinking, and two of these died en route to the rescue ship. Poor Jack never would have stood a chance.
Perhaps that’s why, more than 20 years later, Jack’s death still hurts – he serves as a stand-in for all the real passengers who suffered such a terrible fate. But James Cameron insisted in the Vanity Fair interview that his death was necessary. “Had he lived, the ending of the film would have been meaningless. The film is about death and separation; he had to die.”
When reporting on the interview, many media outlets framed their articles as James Cameron becoming fed up of being asked the same old question. “Twenty years after he sent Jack to a watery grave in Titanic, the director is becoming increasingly tetchy at being asked why Rose couldn’t have saved him,” The Guardian said, before speculating on how Cameron might explode in rage if he was ever asked it again.
But Kate Winslet, it seems, disagrees with Cameron’s words. When she appeared on The Late Show in December 2017, she did a jokey enactment of the infamous scene with host Stephen Colbert. “He just should have tried harder to get on that door,” she said. Her Late Show appearance came just days after Cameron’s interview, so hopefully he wasn’t watching.
But the fact that people constantly ask questions about Titanic or joke about the door scene just goes to show what a mainstay in popular culture it is. It’s kept the realities of the tragedy alive in the public consciousness for a long time now. And there’s no doubt that James Cameron will be at some point asked again about whether Jack and Rose could have both fit on the door. We’ll have to wait and see how he reacts.