Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 5, 2012)
With the 100th anniversary of the launch – and sinking – of the Titanic on the horizon, expect plenty of related materials to hit the marketplace. The biggest comes from the 3D re-release of the 1997 film - and its Blu-ray issue later in 2012, one would assume – but any others will emerge as well. On Titanic: The Complete Story, we find a nice compilation of documentaries about the tragedy, some of which actually predated the James Cameron hit.
This two-DVD set includes three programs, each of which lasts a little more than 90 minutes. However, the first two really should be considered as one long piece. From 1994, “Death of a Dream” and “The Legend Lives On” aired on two different dates but they function as a whole; you can enjoy each alone, but they need to be viewed together to provide the full story.
”Dream” comes first in the chronology. It follows the origins of the ship and follows its building in Ireland. It then shows us the vessel’s entire voyage, at least through the first stages of the sinking. We watch as the boat hits the iceberg and then see much of the rescue efforts that took place on board; by the end of the show, all of the lifeboats are deployed, but it halts at that point.
”Legend” picks up at that point and shows the rest of the story. It displays the immediate reactions as the news hit back in America and elsewhere, and it also continues with the final moments of the boat as well as the rescue. We then watch the aftermath as it affected survivors and the world at large.
Both programs are told via identical methods. Narrated by David McCallum - who acted in A Night to Remember, one of the more famous Titanic films - the visuals display a mix of illustrative art of the journey and sinking, archival photos and footage from the period, and modern interviews with a wide mix of subjects. The programs include comments from survivors - not surprisingly, all of them female - as well as a nice array of Titanic historians and scientists. The latter include well-known writers like author Walter Lord, who created A Night to Remember, the text on which the 1958 film was based.
In addition to these materials, we hear voiceovers that provide writings from Titanic survivors. These add a nice historical perspective that demonstrates the mindset from the period; that complements the new comments from survivors. It’s a broad and representative roster that seems very solid and complete.
At times, “Dream” comes across as somewhat dry, especially during its first two-thirds or so. The show progresses at an appropriate rate and covers all of the material quite cleanly and accurately, but it could seem a little uninvolving at times. The information is very useful and worthwhile, but during these times, the presentation comes across as somewhat flat.
To my moderate surprise, the program becomes much more involving as the boat sinks. I suppose this shouldn’t be a shock, as that’s when all the real drama begins, but I thought the style of presentation would ensure that the whole show would stay unemotional. That isn’t the case. Instead, as the disaster unfolds, the material seems more and more moving and evocative.
I can’t say I’m wild about the use of the voice-overs in general, but they work well here. Overall, the presentation seems very workable, as it covers the material efficiently but keeps from appearing too clinical. Again, it came across that way at times prior to the sinking, but once those elements begin, the show gets more and more riveting. It’s a surprise how much emotion it wrenches from such a seemingly bland format.
”Legend” continues that tone as it follows the aftermath. At times it straddles the edge of becoming excessively syrupy, but it never crosses that line. The music swells a little too much on occasion, but it still remains tasteful and effective. The voice acting seems good, and the mix of third-party historians and first-party survivors makes this a nice combination of sources. The combination of “Dream” and “Legend” creates a very rich and fulfilling look at the history of the ship and its demise.
Called “Beyond Titanic”, the third program bears no direct connection to the first two. Created in 1998 - after the success of the Cameron flick and co-sponsored by Fox - this show follows the ways in which the Titanic has remained in the popular culture over the prior 86 years. Narrated by Victor Garber - who played ship designer Thomas Andrews in Titanic - the program briefly recaps the rescue of survivors and the ensuing news coverage.
After that, it offers a reasonably detailed history of the disaster’s continued impact on popular culture. We hear mainly about cinematic depictions; those began almost immediately with some quick silent films from the era. Some time is devoted to books and other media - such as a CD-ROM exploration of the ship - but movies dominate the show. The program traces additional offerings through the years and also briefly relates the ways in which the Titanic legend fit into the mindsets of the times.
Some of the same participants show up in both programs, but “Beyond” gives us a smattering of new speakers. One of the most interesting elements comes from a repeat survivor. Though an infant during the voyage, Millvina Dean remains haunted by the tragedy, largely due to the loss of her father. She states that she and other survivors went to see A Night to Remember back in 1958 but found the experience to be an emotional ordeal. As such, she and others refuse to watch any other Titanic-oriented flicks, which leads to an amusing story about all the attempts folks made to get her to a screening of Titanic.
Surprisingly, we don’t hear all that much about that movie. Since Fox sponsored the show, I expected a focus on the then current hit, but happily, it receives an appropriate amount of attention. Neither favored nor ignored, we learn of it as another piece in the continuing puzzle.
“Beyond” is a good program, but I must admit it’s my least favorite of the three. It lacks the depth of the first two shows and seems a bit bland at times. Still, it largely covers new territory; some of the material is redundant after the first programs, but most of it is exclusive to “Beyond”. It offers a good capper to the proceedings even if it isn’t as involving as the first two-thirds of the DVD.
While I don’t know if its title is totally accurate, Titanic: The Complete Story does offer a very solid examination of the events in question. It traces the history of the doomed ship from its inception through its sinking to its continued influence on the culture. While parts of it seem a little dry at times, for the most part the program comes across as quite involving and often moving. Ultimately this is a very nice compilation of documentaries that should be very useful and entertaining for anyone with an interest in the Titanic.