Program Notes: Raise the Titanic! (1980)
Raise the Titanic! begins with a montage of old photos of the ocean liner under construction and setting out on her doomed 1912 maiden voyage.
After that modest nod to reality, the film quickly turns into a sort of James Bond fantasy.
Now, decades later, the U.S. Department of Defense desperately wants to get its hands on the byzanium, which is believed to have the potential for weapons so powerful as to make nuclear warheads obsolete.
With byzanium (it’s a made-up word ... the stuff doesn’t exist) we can cow the Soviets into submission and end the Cold War tout suite.
All that’s required is that the good guys find the wreckage of the Titanic two miles deep on the ocean’s floor (the novel was published in 1976, the movie came out in 1980, and the actual Titanic would not be located until 1985) and somehow bring her to the surface.
Piece of cake.
For all the silliness of its setup, Raise the Titanic! gets lots of details right. That’s because Clive Cussler actually knew what he was talking about.
A Navy veteran who got into advertising and then began writing maritime thrillers featuring seagoing spy Dirk Pitt, Cussler was and is a big name in the world of oceanic exploration.
He is the founder and chairman of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) and has been the driving force behind the discovery of more than 60 shipwrecks, including those of the Carpathia (the vessel famous for being the first to come to the aid of the survivors of the Titanic), the Manassas (the first Civil War ironclad), and possibly the famed ghost ship the Mary Celeste (the identity of that particular wreck is in dispute).
So while one may take exception to the film’s leaden dialogue and wooden characters, you’ve got to credit the film with getting right much of the hardware and procedures of deep sea salvage.
Directed in no-nonsense style by TV veteran Jerry Jameson, this big-budget (for the time) production has a good cast. Jason Robards plays the Navy admiral who sets the whole thing in motion. David Selby is the scientist behind it all. Anne Archer is his girlfriend, a newspaper reporter.
Richard Jordan plays Dirk Pitt, Cussler’s jack of all deadly trades. (Turns out the Archer character was once his girlfriend, so there’s a bit of three-way tension there.)
Among the supporting cast are familiar faces like M. Emmet Walsh, J.D. Cannon, Elya Baskin, and especially Alec Guinness, who plays a now-elderly crewman who served on the Titanic and knows the whereabouts on the ship of the precious byzanium.
Experts will tell you that Cussler’s plan for raising the sunken liner couldn’t work. First, the ship broke in two as it settled on the bottom. Second, Cussler’s idea of displacing the water in the Titanic’s hold by pumping in foam couldn’t possibly create enough buoyancy to do the job.
Still, Raise the Titanic! introduces some (for 1980) heady technology, especially the tiny manned submarines used by the explorers to search the ocean floor and finally drift over the sunken ship.
Remember, this was good decade before Jurassic Park showed the possibilities of digital special effects. Everything we see in Raise the Titanic! had to be created the old fashioned way, with real underwater photography, life-size sets and, in the spectacular raising sequence, with a carefully detailed model.
Raise the Titanic! was produced by British magnate Lord Lew Grade, who was the money man behind TV’s hugely successful The Muppet Show but whose theatrical films were so clunky as to earn him the nickname Lord Low Grade.
Raise the Titanic! didn’t do anything to enhance his reputation. Made for $36 million, it grossed less than a quarter of that.
Other films in the series “Women and Children First”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 2: Titanic (1953) Not rated
- April 9: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) Not rated
- April 16: Raise the Titanic (1980) Rated PG
- April 23: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) Rated G
- April 30: A Night to Remember (1958) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.