You did know the Titanic was a real ship, didn’t you? Laughing Squid did a Twitter-trawl to find people for whom this came as news. Amusing as it is, it’s not so surprising that there are now adults who have no memory of the Titanic from before James Cameron’s film. Those who were five when it came out are twenty now. They’ve grown up in a world where Titanic is, and has always been, the most successful film ever.
And the opposite misconception – that it was the worst tragedy in maritime history – is far more widespread, and every bit as wrong. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come close. Even if you restrict the definition of disaster to accidental losses, it doesn’t appear in the five worst on record. If we include deliberate sinkings such as acts of war and piracy, it’s hardly on the radar.
So why is this the sinking everyone remembers? To be blunt, because it’s a great story. The key factor is that the Titanic had just become the largest ship ever afloat. At once you have a story of hubris; overambitious humans tempting fate is one of the great templates of drama. And to stoke the irony, the owners had unguardedly described it as “virtually unsinkable”. Then there’s the needlessness of the deaths caused by the under-provision of lifeboats. That gives the story a terrible pathos. And her passengers included some of the richest people in the world, so you have the vital celebrity angle. The rich surviving at the expense of the poor makes it a story about injustice too.
No wonder so many people think it was invented for the cinema. It’s ideal. The first film about it was made within a month! And even before that it was entering folklore as story and song – hundreds and hundreds of songs, including one I remember my grandfather singing. The Titanic was an instant legend.
The actual greatest tragedy at sea? For a single ship, almost certainly the Wilhelm Gustloff, on which at least six times as many lives were lost as aboard the Titanic. Six times. Why is this not the subject of a wildly successful film?
Because we sank it.
Well, “we” if you identify with the Allied side in World War II. Though it was packed to the gunwales – literally – with civilian refugees, it was also carrying Nazi officers and troops retreating from the Russian advance in 1945. No icebergs, no Edwardian frocks. Germans sunk by Soviets as part of a bitter and ruthless war. Tragic, yes. But not in the least romantic. So no multi-Oscar film for the Wilhelm Gustloff and her nine thousand dead.