After multiple documentaries and dramatizations, there shouldn’t be any new stories left to tell for filmmakers, but as this superb German-Irish co-production for TV proves, by focusing on the marginalized everymen, what emerges is a striking dramatization of the men who worked the ship’s boilers – the firemen (stokers), engineers, and electricians – and how many stayed in the boiler rooms to keep the power running, giving the doomed ship an estimate 90 minutes of life, and saving extra lives after horrific damage in the ship’s first 5 compartments.
The script by Colin Herber-Percy, Lyall Watson and Lyall B. Watson is told in a flashback of sorts: fireman Fred Barrett (Primeval’s Cieran McMenamin) tells his side of the heroism he witnessed and participated in to the White Star brass in New York City. From their inquiry, the executives want commercial heroes they can publicize to prove the ship wasn’t manned by incompetent company men, but survivor Barrett is clearly racked with while the men he deemed finer in constitution – such as engineer Joseph Bell (The Tudor’s David Wilmot) – went down with the ship. To be alive yielded a particularly nasty stigma for some, and Barrett’s demeanor clearly shows he wishes he’d died with his colleagues and superiors.
The film’s core drama focuses on the men’s first days on the ship, and the sea voyage that took them on a deadly path. Director Maurice Sweeney never allows his camera to go beyond the physical parameters of where the boiler men lived and worked: there’s the sleeping quarters that lacks any natural light, the officer’s quarters slightly illuminated by portholes, and the engine room, with its giant cylinders and rows of massive boilers. One of the men ventures up the fourth ‘fake’ smokestack to take a forbidden peek at the first class travelers, but aside from a few sporadic exterior shots establishing the ship’s continuity during her maiden voyage, what viewers see, hear, and almost smell is the dank, filthy, toxic conditions of the stokers.
The script is expertly layered with bits of dialogue which make note of classic divisions between officers and the lowly stokers, religious angst between Protestant and Catholics, and the ship’s innards. Sweeney also uses periodic narration and animated architectural schematics to outline the ship’s superstructure, her array of secure bulkheads, safety features, and where a two-foot tear in a boiler room and cheap, combustible coal bought during a strike contributed to the ship’s agglomeration of bad luck.
There’s subtle CGI for a few shots of Bell standing on a platform while a giant cylinder pumps and grinds behind him, but most of the sets are practical, as are the flooding effects. It’s a remarkable production that pulls off just the right amount of illusion to create a docu-drama feel. How much is pure dramatic license is up to the viewer; what sells the characters are the strong performances, and lead actors who don’t swerve into melodrama. If there’s one flaw in the teleplay, it’s the filmmakers’ obvious insistence on dropping little moments of doom & gloom portent – a typical scripting touch inherent to the disaster genre, be it with big ships or big buildings (such as The Towering Inferno).
The teleplay also succeeds in making the ship one of the tragic characters; there is a belief that when a complex machine is created by mankind, it becomes a living thing – dependent on fuel, but born with its own temperament and personality. The loss of a great ship is tragic, and there are some little moments which demonstrate the faith and affection the men had for the grand ship, such as the engineers relishing the rumbling of her turbines, or the humming generators that were restarted to ensure the Titanic could still offer passengers lights to safety.
Saving the Titanic apparently exists in two versions: a 90 min. feature-length version (which appears to be the one aired on CBC Newsworld’s The Passionate Eye in April, 2012, and as a two-part 104 min. TV version that seems to be exclusive to Europe.
Currently not on DVD, but ought to be. Those who missed the airing can also watch the teleplay online, at CBC’s website.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan