Apr 19, 2012

Raise The Titanic (1980)

Director: Jerry Jameson
Writers: Adam Kennedy, Eric Hughes; based upon the novel by Clive Cussler
Producer: William Frye
Music: John Barry
Cinematographer: Matthew F. Leonetti
ITC; 114 min; color

Jason Robards (Admiral James Sandecker), Richard Jordan (Dirk Pitt), David Selby (Dr. Gene Seagram), Anne Archer (Dana Archibald), Alec Guinness (John Bigalow), Bo Brundin (Captain Prevlov), M. Emmet Walsh (Master Chief Vinnie Walker), J.D. Cannon (Captain Joe Burke)

"It would've been cheaper to lower the Atlantic." - Lord Lew Grade.

Over the weekend, the centenary of the Titanic disaster was being honoured at the movies, where one could see James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster re-released with 3D, and on the boob tube, where Titanic-themed films and documentaries filled the time slots. (The History Channel even ran a piece about the making of the 1943 epic financed by Nazi Germany!) No-one, however, had the gumption to air the infamous box-office flop, Raise the Titanic (at least not within our broadcast band), so I felt the necessity to take matters into my own hands and give it another look for the first time in over thirty years.

Yes, I was one of the few who saw this movie in its original release: it was on a Saturday night in December 1980 in my hometown, where it shared a double bill with Charles Bronson's Borderline (co-incidentally, both were released by ITC Films). [Note: if a small-town theater shows two movies for the price of one, you know at least one of them is a stinker.] This epic cost a whopping forty million dollars to produce, and only made back seven million in rentals. Although its lost revenue didn't equal the same year's Heaven's Gate, Raise The Titanic however joined the dubious group of movies at the time (including Inchon and Honky Tonk Freeway) which lost a fortune at the box office. 

The famous quote above by Lord Grade, the head of ITC Films, summarizes this picture's economic folly. One example of how money was frittered away is chronicled in Harry and Michael Medved's 1984 book, The Hollywood Hall of Shame: once it was discovered that the $500,000 miniature scale model of the Titanic was the wrong size for the tank it was to float in, rather than spend an equal amount of money adapting the model, the filmmakers instead blew six million bucks to change the tank! Ultimately, the financial disaster of this movie was a major factor in Lew Grade’s withdrawal from cinema.

In more than one way, Raise The Titanic was a victim of bad timing. It was released when disaster movies, or big-budget spectacles were falling out of favour at the box office. This old-fashioned adventure would also be rendered obsolete in a few years, once the wreck of the Titanic had finally been found on the ocean floor.... and to be cracked in two. Because the hull was not intact, the entire modus operandi of this project would be made improbable. Still, because filming commenced in 1978, and that it was based upon a Clive Cussler novel published in 1976, one could hardly chide the creatives for that any more than Fritz Lang's Woman On The Moon (1929) for depicting Earth's lunar satellite with a breathable atmosphere. 

Regardless, Cussler was so incensed with the film adaptation that he forbade any further transformations of his work to the screen (the author would later sue the filmmakers of Sahara). I’ve never read the novel, so I can only base this review on what appears in the movie.  The relationships between the central characters are superficial at best: there’s a flirtation of a love triangle between nosy reporter Dana, her current beau, geeky scientist Dr. Seagram and her old flame, hunky hero Dirk Pitt (a character in many Cussler novels). The two men are already locking horns over the best way for the US government to raise the ill-fated Titanic from the ocean floor, to retrieve a rare ore required for a nuclear defense system against the Russians. (Oh yes, another example of bad timing...) 

Among the few theatrical features by Jerry Jameson (a prolific director of episodic television and MOW’s) was the disaster epic Airport 77 (which also featured the great M. Emmet Walsh in a bit). Neither of these films allow for the people to be eclipsed by the special effects- however,  for this movie, whatever complexities originally existed with the characters in the novel don’t survive the translation. The lovely Anne Archer could’ve been written out of the film with little difficulty, ditto first-billed Jason Robards. Although it’s always great to see the salty character actor, he, like the rest of the cast, have little to do but watch gauges and look out porthole windows. The acting honours go to Sir Alec Guinness, who only has two scenes, as a Titanic survivor who reveals to Pitt where the precious cargo can be found. The viewer vicariously experiences his trauma of that fateful night- his eyes say it all!

Still, criticizing this movie for its weak character development is like buying Playboy for the crossword puzzle: people are paying to see something else entirely. Despite that the characters are skin deep, and that there are still some gaffes like the absence of corpses in the Titanic, the movie is never dull. The 1912 disaster, now as then, holds such an enticing mystique with the audience, that this premise remains captivating, although it could have used some more action- especially in the expected conflict with the Russians, once the Soviet government gets wise to their scheme. Indeed, you get what you pay for: the climactic sequence (in slow motion, with multiple angles) where the ship finally rises from its watery grave is tremendous cinema (and tremendously moving, augmented by one of John Barry’s best, most haunting film scores). 

Although the movie ends with a diminuendo of a rushed conclusion, Raise The Titanic is still nonetheless an interesting view- I was still haunted for days afterwards. Ironically, seeing the ship rise forces the viewer to ponder the human tragedy of when it sank. One retains a visceral experience of cold and foreboding as our heroes journey to an aquatic neverland - the most godforsaken place on earth, beyond the point of a safe return.

It is ironic that today, where it is fashionable to bash James Cameron’s elephantine 1997 depiction of the Titanic disaster, which became one of the biggest box-office attractions in history, people have come out of the woodwork, saying that they have a soft spot for Lew Grade’s ill-fated production. You know, I see it- and perhaps I’m just getting soft: after all, I managed to find virtue in other disaster-themed duds of its day (like Meteor and When Time Ran Out). Even though the characterizations are as thin as Cameron’s film, old-fashioned miniatures beat out cartoonish CGI any day of the week. In the current age, where big-budget escapist fare has the clinical, generic feel of being made by robots, it is refreshing to view even flawed spectacles like these that however feel more honest and less manipulative. Time, as they say, is the true evaluator of quality.

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