1980 film Raise the Titanic sunk without trace on release, but it far from the unmitigated disaster that many claim.
Raise the Titanic is infamous as the British Heaven’s Gate – a huge budget film that flopped so spectacularly that it essentially derailed the production company, Lew Grade’s ITC, much to the undisguised pleasure of the British film establishment who all considered his ambitions to make crowd-pleasing, international films rather vulgar. For film critics of the time, populist cinema was the sort of thing that you left to tasteless Americans, and Grade – not exactly a shy, retiring type – had long upset them with his desire to compete with (and often pass his films off as) US studio productions. When the $40 million Raise the Titanic sank faster than the ship it was based around – eventually making back less than half its budget worldwide – everyone was delighted. The fact that ITC were the only people actually keeping British cinema a going concern at the time didn’t matter – now, the belief was, we can get back to making furiously political Play For Today style dramas and save all that entertainment stuff for other people.
In truth, the film didn’t quite kill ITC, though this and The Legend of the Lone Ranger were very much the last gasps of the company’s grand ambitions. Future ITC productions would be on a decidedly smaller scale. But the film has remained something of a laughing stock – often listed as one of the worst films ever made, usually by people who haven’t actually seen it, but go with the orthodoxy. In reality, it proves not to be that bad. I’m not going to suggest that the film is great, by any means, but quite frankly, if you really think this is one of the worst films ever made, then I can only assume that you haven’t seen very many films.
The plot is simple – so simple, in fact, that it is needlessly padded out to ensure a two-hour running time. This is actually the film’s primary failing. The story concerns American military efforts to locate a new power source, ‘byzanium’, supposedly located in a Soviet-controlled North Sea island. This power source is needed for a new missile defence shield, and is keenly sought after by both superpowers. It turns out that an American agent had attempted to ship a box of the rare material to America, unfortunately sailing on the doomed Titanic. So, knowing that the ship contains this sought after material – but is currently at the bottom of the sea, too far down for divers to visit, the unlikely-named US agent Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan) decides that the only thing to do is to raise the sunken ship, at great effort and expense. He’s aided by scientist Gene Seagram (David Selby) and Navy admiral James Sandecker (Jason Robards), and their first mission is to locate the Titanic – a difficult and dangerous task. But eventually, they succeed, and the mission to raise the ship begins. However, the Soviets are watching their every move…
As with many an ITC film, you’d never guess that this was a British production by watching it. The cast is almost entirely American, with Alec Guinness being a sole Brit presence in a small, marquee-grabbing (he was big from Star Wars at the time) role as a Titanic survivor. Otherwise, the look and feel of the film is very much in the grand US epic tradition, taking on board elements of the Cold War thriller (ironically a couple of years too soon – this would’ve been a perfect fit for the Reagan era) and the disaster movie – though in this case, the disaster has happened decades earlier (coincidentally, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure appeared around the same time as this film and also bombed at the box office, helping end the first era of disaster movie production).
There are certainly several problems here. The stuff with the Soviet agents never quite works, and feels like a distraction from the main plot, as does a subplot involving Anne Archer as a love interest to spur a rivalry between the two male leads, Jordan and Selby. It’s pretty obvious that she has been crowbarred into the story to provide a token female presence, and she has very little to do, her involvement in proceedings eventually fizzling out (I swear that everyone involved in the writing simply forgets all about her once the mission began). Her scenes slow everything down, frankly.
There’s also the fact that the murky underwater scenes often reduce the very expensive special effect scenes to the point where, when you can see what is going on, they look very cheap. Dark water might be authentic, but the film would’ve benefited from less realism and more visual coherence in these scenes.
But there’s a lot that impresses here too. The much-criticised Titanic model is actually a magnificent creation, and the scene where it emerges from the water is genuinely inspiring – a real, huge physical object rising from the ocean, and backed by John Barry’s sweeping score, it looks fantastic. It can’t honestly say that it was money well spent, given how poorly the film performed, but it’s certainly impressive to see. And Barry’s score is one of his finest, a fact that even the film’s haters had to admit.
Raise the Titanic is overlong, not especially well written (source novel author Clive Cussler loathed it so much that he refused to sell further film rights for 25 years) and indifferently directed by TV helmsman Jerry Jameson. But to say that it is awful – or even simply bad – would be wrong. This is unexceptional, certainly – but solid entertainment nevertheless, and hardly deserving of its dreadful reputation. If you’ve avoided it until now, I’d suggest giving it a go – you might be pleasantly surprised.