Raise the Titanic (1980)

Lew Grade's much denigrated adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel is that most satisfying of movie beasts - an experience that turns a bad read into a cinematic guilty pleasure. The film has rather a lot going for it now, though it's easy to see why it was panned on release - the plotting is poor, some of the model work is underwhelming, and the film has a curious atmosphere of reverence towards a ship "that never learned to do anything except sink."

American scientists attempting to build an anti-nuclear shield require copious amounts of a little-known mineral called Byzanium. After discovering a large quantity of said mineral had been transported in the hold of the Titanic, the US Navy makes arrangements to raise the infamous liner - but the Soviets have other ideas. That's it really.

Though the novel is not written in the manner of a Saturday morning serial (and Cussler would have been the first to object were it reviewed as such) the author allegedly cited "Dirk Pitt" as an Indiana Jones style character, an opinion he appears to have formed only after he had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. If it is a matter of casting - Harrison Ford v Richard Jordan - there's no doubt Ford wins hands down. Not on acting plaudits - Jordan and Ford are equally matched there - but because Ford was carrying the dash of Han Solo with him into Spielberg's film, as well as significant box office clout; whereas Jordan was simply too ambivalent an actor to care about stardom or box office. In fact Jordan is perfect casting for the film's continued afterlife as a guilty pleasure - an acclaimed stage actor, his persistent, almost perverse, appearances in such car crashes as Solarbabies (Hello, is this your ball?) and Timebomb, guarantee the film a cult infamy; after all, this was a man who spent his evenings away from the movie set doing Havel and Shakespeare off-Broadway. The truth is that "Dirk Pitt" is one of those generic macho creations so beloved of hack authors, and Jordan excises every trace of this from the character, much to Cussler's chagrin no doubt, and to my own delight. No, the casting is fine, superb even, from Jordan to Robards and Alec Guinness.

Another problem with the Indiana Jones flannel is that Mr Cussler's unobtainium doesn't have the same religious or mystical properties as the Ark of the Covenant, nor the ability to burn up Soviets the way the Ark burns up Nazis. Unobtainium is fissionable material and its destructive potential is placed at the theoretical remove of Mutually Assured Destruction rather than the more dramatic immediacy of lightning bolts from God. Which is a pity because, while the plot of Raise the Titanic is botched, the idea of writing a cold war scenario into Titanic lore is an interesting one, and a clever acknowledgement that the only way to meet the expense of raising something like the Titanic is through defence expenditure. Indiana Jones doesn't have these resources - Dirt Pitt does. I think we can safely set aside any ideas of Raise the Titanic as a missed opportunity for an action romp as delusion. Instead we have a fairly serious film which relies on the historical and novelty value of the Titanic to do justice to an incredible plot. The fact that the Titanic story is incredible in itself goes some way towards making it work.

As director Jerry Jameson is a quirky choice - he helmed several interesting television movies during the 70s - The Deadly Tower and A Fire in the Sky among them, and Raise the Titanic appears to have been his one shot at a big-budget film. He doesn't fail, but it is obvious that he locates the heart of the film on the ship, rather than with the accompanying cold war thriller. It's a deliberate choice that he devotes almost as much time to allowing Jordan to poignantly wander the Titanic's wrecked ballroom as he does to the inevitable confrontation with the Soviets. The Soviets, sadly, are portrayed as one-dimensional characters whose apparent obsession with unobtainium closes their eyes and ears even to the alleged majesty of John Barry's score.

And therein lies the point - the real unobtainium of Raise the Titanic is the ship; not the model, not its cargo or its physical aspect, but the wistful real world ship, which is already raised daily by the imagination.

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