Titanic's Last Sunset
Poster for Titanic

Q:    Did First Officer Murdoch really shoot himself?
In scene 234, First Officer Murdoch is losing control of the crowd on the starboard boat deck.  He threatens to shoot any man who tries to get past him.  A man comes through the crowd and Murdoch shoots him.  Then someone shoves Tommy Ryan from behind.  Murdoch sees Tommy's forward movement, and he is shot as well.  Murdoch feeling immense guilt over killing the two men, salutes his crew then fires a bullet into his temple.  His body falls backwards into the sea.

Whether this scene really happened is open to debate.  In his account, Colonel Gracie asked the question, did either Captain Smith or First Officer Murdoch shoot himself?  His answer:  "Notwithstanding all the current rumors and newspaper statements answering this question affirmatively, I have been unable to find any passenger or member of the crew cited as authority for the statement that either Captain Smith or First Officer Murdoch did anything of the sort.  On the contrary, so far as relates to Captain Smith, there are several witnesses, including Harold S. Bride, the junior Marconi operator, who saw him at the last on the bridge of his ship, and later, when sinking and struggling in the water.  Neither can I discover any authentic testimony about First Officer Murdoch's shooting himself.  On the contrary, I find fully sufficient evidence that he did not.  He was a brave and efficient officer and no sufficient motive for self-destruction can be advanced.  He performed his full duty under difficult circumstances, and was entitled to praise and honor.  During the last fifteen minutes before the ship sank, I was located at that quarter forward on the Boat Deck, starboard side, where Murdoch was in command and where the crew under him were engaged in the vain attempt of launching the Engelhardt boat.  The report of a pistol shot during this interval ringing in my ears within a few feet of me would certainly have attracted my attention, and later, when I moved astern, the distance between us was not so great as to prevent my hearing it.  The "big wave" or "giant wave," described by Harold Bride, swept away Murdoch and the crew from the Boat Deck first before it struck me, and when I rose with it to the roof of the officers' house, Bride's reported testimony fits in with mine so far as relates to time, place, and circumstance, and I quote his words as follows:  "About ten minutes before the ship sank, Captain Smith gave word for every man to look to his own safety.  I sprang to aid the men struggling to launch the life raft (Engelhardt boat), and we had succeeded in getting it to the edge of the ship when a giant wave carried it away."  Lightoller also told me on board the Carpathia that he saw Murdoch when he was engulfed by the water and that if before this a pistol had been fired within the short distance that separated them, he also is confident that he would have heard it."  (Gracie, pp. 144-145)

[Notes:  Engelhardt boats were smaller, collapsible lifeboats, of which the Titanic carried four.  Gracie, Lightoller, Bride and approximately twenty-seven other men survived by climbing onto an overturned, half-submerged Engelhardt boat.  The "big wave" which Gracie and Bride refer to appears to have been caused by the ship dipping down quickly.  "Down, down dipped the Titanic's bow, and her stern swung slowly up.  She seemed to be moving forward too.  It was this motion which generated the wave that hit Daly, Brown and dozens of others as it rolled aft."  (Lord, NTR, p. 94)

On the other hand, Walter Lord presents two very interesting excerpts from letters written by survivors.  Both were written a few days after the sinking by men to family members.  The first excerpt is by Eugene Daly, to his sister in Ireland:  "At the first cabin [deck] when a boat was being lowered an officer pointed a revolver and said if any man tried to get in, he would shoot him on the spot.  I saw the officer shoot two men dead because they tried to get in the boat.  Afterwards there was another shot, and I saw the officer himself lying on the deck.  They told me he shot himself, but I did not see him.  I was up to my knees in the water at the time.  Every one was rushing around, and there were no more boats.  I then dived overboard." (NLO, pp. 101-2)   The second excerpt is from George Rheims to his wife in France:  "While the last boat was leaving, I saw an officer with a revolver fire a shot and kill a man who was trying to climb into it.  As there remained nothing more for him to do, the officer told us, "Gentlemen, each man for himself, Good-bye."  He gave a military salute and then fired a bullet into his head.  That's what I call a man!!!" (NLO, p. 102)  Lord did not believe Daly or Rheims were in contact with the other, nor did he believe either man had a reason to lie or make up a story.  He does believe both men were in a position to see the event, near Collapsible Boat A.  Lord then considers four members of the crew:  Purser McElroy, Sixth Officer Moody, First Officer Murdoch and Chief Officer Wilde.  Lord dismisses the idea of McElroy and Moody as being the officer in question (both McElroy and Moody, for example, did not have the authority to declare Each man for himself with senior officers nearby).  Murdoch, on the other hand, was in the right place at the right time, but "Lightoller" and those who knew Murdoch felt he was the last person to take his own life.  When last seen, just as Lightoller dove into the sea, Murdoch was still working on the falls." (NLO, p. 104)  This leaves Wilde.  Wilde was a last minute substitute for the Chief Officer's position according to Lightoller (pp. 277-78; originally Murdoch was to be Chief Officer on the maiden voyage).  However, no one really knew Wilde, either among the passengers or the crew and he is rarely mentioned in any of the survivor accounts.  Like Murdoch, Wilde was also at the right place at the right time.  Wilde was the officer in charge of lowering Engelhardt Boat "C," according to J. Bruce Ismay (Kuntz, p. 20) and Quartermaster G.T. Rowe (Gracie, p. 259), both of whom were on board that boat.  According to the British Inquiry, this was also the last boat to be lowered on the starboard side.  Following Rheims' story, it is conceivable (but not provable) that Wilde killed himself after lowering that final boat.  However, as Walter Lord says, "silence and our lack of knowledge are not evidence; so in the end there's no more reason to suppose Wilde was the officer seen by Daly and Rheims than anyone else." (NLO, pp. 104-5)  The question remains a mystery.

(Return to What Happened to...?)

Q:    Did Rose really ask Thomas Andrews if he wouldn't make a try for it?

In scene 235, Thomas Andrews is standing in front of a fireplace in the First Class Smoke Room, staring at a large painting above the mantle.  Jack and Rose pass through the room when Rose recognizes Andrews.  She stops and asks him, "Won't you even make a try for it, Mr. Andrews?"  He answers her, "I'm sorry that I didn't build you a stronger ship, young Rose."  He then gives her his lifebelt and wishes her luck before Jack pulls her through the revolving doors.

This is another scene where Cameron has directly borrowed some actual dialogue from the real Titanic.  Rose didn't say this, obviously, as she is a fictional character, but a steward did.  "The smoking room was not completely empty.  When a steward looked in at 2:10, he was surprised to see Thomas Andrews standing all alone in the room.  Andrews' lifebelt lay carelessly across the green cloth top of a card table.  His arms were folded over his chest; his look was stunned; all his drive and energy were gone.  A moment of awed silence, and the steward timidly broke in:  "Aren't you going to have a try for it, Mr. Andrews?"
    "There was no answer, not even a trace that he heard.  The builder of the Titanic merely stared aft.  On the mahogany-paneled wall facing him hung a large painting called, "The Approach of the New World."  (Lord, NTR, p. 90)

Q:    How did Captain Smith die?

Scene 245:  "CAPTAIN SMITH, standing near the wheel, watches the black water climbing the windows of the enclosed wheelhouse.  He has the stricken expression of a damned soul on Judgment Day.  The windows burst suddenly and a wall of water edged with shards of glass slams into Smith.  He disappears in a vortex of foam."

According to Harold Bride, the junior Marconi (radio) operator, Captain Smith didn't die on the bridge as Cameron depicts.

"Senator Smith [of Michigan]:  When did you last see the captain?  When he told you to take care of yourself?
Mr. Bride:  The last I saw of the captain he went overboard from the bridge; sir.
Senator Smith:  Did you see the Titanic sink?
Mr. Bride:  Yes, sir.
Senator Smith:  And the captain was at that time on the bridge?
Mr. Bride:  No, sir.
Senator Smith:  What do you mean by overboard?
Mr. Bride:  He jumped overboard from the bridge.  He jumped overboard from the bridge when we were launching the collapsible lifeboat [Engelhardt "B"].
Senator Smith:  Do you know whether the captain had a life belt on?
Mr. Bride:  He had not when I last saw him.
Senator Smith:  He had not?
Mr. Bride:  No, sir."  (Kuntz, p. 108)

This was corroborated in Gracie's account:  "After we had left the danger zone in the vicinity of the wreck, conversation between us first developed, and I heard the men aft of me discussing the fate of the Captain.  At least two of them, according to their statements made at the time, had seen him on this craft of ours shortly after it was floated from the ship.  In the interviews already referred to, Harry Senior the fireman, referring to the same overturned boat [Engelhardt B], said, "The Captain had been able to reach this boat.  They had pulled him on, but he slipped off again."  Still another witness, the entree cook of the Titanic, J. Maynard, who was on our boat, corroborates what I heard said at the time about the inability of the Captain to keep his hold on the boat.  From several sources I have the information about the falling of the funnel, the splash of which swept from the upturned boat several who were first clinging thereto, and among the number possibly was the Captain."  (pp. 161-62)

Also, "Another swimmer kept cheering them on:  Good boy!  Good lads!  He had the voice of authority and never asked to climb aboard.  Even though they were dangerously overcrowded, Walter Hurst couldn't resist holding out an oar.  But the man was too far gone.  As the oar touched him, he spun about like a cork and was silent.  To this day Hurst thinks it was Captain Smith."  (Lord, NTR, pp. 116-17)

In other words, instead of gallantly facing death inside the wheelhouse as Cameron depicts, Captain Smith actually dove into the water from the bridge and nearly survived the disaster by swimming to the overturned lifeboat which Lightoller, Gracie, Bride and a number of others were able to climb aboard.  Whether he died from the cold water, from being swept away from the boat when the "big wave" struck (created by the falling of the first funnel), or from being crushed by the funnel as it fell is unclear.

Q:    Did the stern of the Titanic really crash down to the sea before rising one last time before its fateful plunge?
In scenes 272 through 278, we see the final death throes of the Titanic.  Cameron's version is essentially this:  the stern of the ship, having been lifted up high in the air, begins to tear the ship in two from the strain of the stern's weight.  The stern, now connected to the bow only by the keel, plummets to the ocean's surface as if on a hinge.  Those people in the water directly beneath the stern are crushed as if by "God's bootheel."  (Cameron, scene 274)  A huge wave of water is created by the stern.  The people on the stern think the nightmare is over, but the bow is still connected to the stern by the keel.  As the bow sinks deeper into the Atlantic, the stern returns to an upright position until it is completely vertical.  For a few moments, the stern bobs on the ocean like a cork, then begins its final descent into the sea.  The last we see of the ship are the gold letters "TITANIC."

Of all the film, this is probably the most controversial part from an historical viewpoint.  Survivor accounts were contradictory with the prevailing view back then being completely off-base with what we know today.  What we do know is that the bow and stern completely detached from each other and are now 1,970 feet apart on the ocean floor.

There is some basis in the recorded history for Cameron's chain of events:  "...of the 20 witnesses who described the final plunge at the American and British investigations, 16 firmly declared that the Titanic either split in two or at least was breaking up as she went under.  There is, moreover, a remarkable similarity about what they saw...

"And so it went, account after account, all describing the same sequence:  a break or fracture of the hull...the forward part disappearing from view...the afterpart righting itself briefly, then tilting up on end and plunging down too."  (Lord, NLO, pp. 120-21)

In the movie, Cameron presents what is known as the "top down" theory.  Roy Mengot, on the other hand, proposes an alternative, the "bottom up" theory.  Mengot says to think of how a stick is broken versus a cardboard tube.  A stick breaks from the top down, the tube from the bottom up.  The bottom of a tube buckles up while the sides bend outward.  The Titanic acted more like a tube, Mengot says, while Cameron treated the Titanic like a stick.  According to Mengot, water kept filling the bow of the ship which increased its weight, putting an incredible level of stress on the keel.  Although the bow was being pulled down by gravity and water was pushing the stern up from beneath, the sides of the ship tried to remain straight.  There came a point, though, when the keel could take no more pressure.  It buckled upwards and transferred the stress to the ship's sides, bowing them outwards.  The ribs of the sides of the ship just aft of the buckle become the focal point of that stress, and they tore off.  The upper decks were pulled down with the bow.  The bow and stern then began to separate, with the bow continuing to move downward while the stern tried to stabilize.  With the keel breaking apart, water flooded the stern much more quickly.  The upper decks also began to crash down.  Instead of the keel being the hinge which pulled the stern upright in the water, it was more likely that the upper decks did so (this is my supposition, not Mengot's).  In time, the decks couldn't stand the strain and the bow completely separated from the stern.  The stern remained upright in the air a few minutes before settling into the sea.  (To read Mengot's analysis of the breakup, which includes diagrams, click here.)
Which theory is correct, top down or bottom up?  It is very difficult to say.  (It is at this point where I recall Lord's words about "the rash man.")  I am by no means an expert on ship wrecks, but I tend to favor the "bottom up" theory.  Here are several accounts:

"And all the time, as we watched, the Titanic sank lower and lower by the head and the angle became wider and wider as the stern porthole lights lifted and the bow lights sank, and it was evident she was not to stay afloat much longer...At about 2:15 a.m. I think we were any distance from a mile to two miles away [Unlikely.  Most other boats were reported to be a quarter-mile or so from the Titanic at the time of the sinking.]...About this time, the water had crept up almost to her sidelight and the captain's bridge, and it seemed a question only of minutes before she sank...The lights still shone with the same brilliance, but not so many of them:  many were now below the surface...And then, as we gazed awe-struck, she tilted slowly up, revolving apparently about a center of gravity just astern of amidships, until she attained a vertically upright position; and there she remained--motionless!  As she swung up, her lights, which had shone without a flicker all night, went out suddenly, came on again for a single flash, then went out altogether.  And as they did so, there came a noise which many people, wrongly I think, have described as an explosion; it has always seemed to me that it was nothing but the engines and machinery coming loose from their bolts and bearings, and falling through the compartments, smashing everything in their way.  It was partly a roar, partly a groan, partly a rattle, and partly a smash, and it was not a sudden roar as an explosion would be:  it went on successively for some seconds, possibly fifteen to twenty, as the heavy machinery dropped down to the bottom (now the bows) of the ship:  I suppose it fell through the end and sank first, before the ship...When the noise was over the Titanic was still upright like a column:  we could see her now only as the stern and some 150 feet of her stood outlined against the star-specked sky, looming black in the darkness, and in this position she continued for some minutes--I think as much as five minutes, but it may have been less.  Then, first sinking back a little at the stern, I thought, she slid slowly forwards through the water and dived slantingly down; the sea closed over her and we had seen the last of the beautiful ship on which we had embarked four days before at Southampton."  [Beesley, pp. 46-48]

"Lights on board the Titanic were still burning, and a wonderful spectacle she made, standing out black and massive against the starlit sky:  myriads of lights still gleaming through the portholes, from that part of the decks still above water.
    "The fore part, and up to the second funnel was by this time completely submerged, and as we watched this terribly awe-inspiring sight, suddenly all lights went out and the huge bulk was left in black darkness, but clearly silhouetted against the bright sky.  Then, the next moment, the massive boilers left their beds and went thundering down with a hollow rumbling roar, through the bulkheads, carrying everything with them that stood in the way.  This unparalleled tragedy that was being enacted before our very eyes, now rapidly approached its finale, as the huge ship slowly but surely reared herself on end and brought rudder and propellers clear of the water, till, at last, she assumed an absolute perpendicular position.  In this amazing attitude she remained for the space of half a minute.  Then with impressive majesty and ever-increasing momentum, she silently took her last tragic dive to seek a final resting place in the unfathomable depths of the cold gray Atlantic.
    "Almost like a benediction everyone round me on the upturned boat breathed the two words, "She's gone."  [Lightoller, pp. 299-300]

In both of these testimonies, there is no mention whatsoever of the stern crashing down to the sea before rising to the final perpendicular position which both men describe.  Another point to consider is that there is no mention in either the modern or contemporary accounts of a wave of water which would have been produced by the stern had it fallen back as dramatically as Cameron makes it.  There are only two waves mentioned in the survivor accounts:  the wave which swept Engelhardt boat "B" off the roof of the officers' quarters and the wave created by the falling of the first funnel.  Both of those waves happened in the front half of the ship.

On the other hand, both Beesley and Lightoller described noises which they believed to be the boilers and other machinery falling forward into the bow.  We now know that this is generally incorrect, and the noise was caused by the ship breaking in two.  However, at the time, the prevailing view (endorsed by both the American and British investigations) was that the ship sank intact, despite the testimony of the others which Lord mentioned above.

"The seventeen-year-old son of Mr. John B. Thayer, Jack Thayer, Jr., and his young friend from Philadelphia, R. N. Williams, Jr., the tennis expert, in describing their experiences to me were positive that they saw the ship split in two.  This was from their position in the water on the starboard quarter.  Some of the passengers...are also cited by the newspapers as authority for the statements that the ship broke in two, that she "buckled amidships," that she "was literally torn to pieces," etc.  On the other hand, there is much testimony available which is at variance with this much-advertised sensational newspaper account.  Summing up its investigation of this point the Senate Committee's Report reads:  "There have been many conflicting statements as to whether the ship broke in two, but the preponderance of the evidence is to the effect that that she assumed an almost end-on position and sank intact."  This was as Lightoller testified before the Committee, that the Titanic's decks were "absolutely intact" when she went down."  [Gracie, pp. 142-143]

Beesley could not believe this either:  "Several apparently authentic accounts have been given, in which definite stories of explosions have been related--in some cases even with wreckage blown up and the ship broken in two; but I think such accounts will not stand close analysis." [p. 47]

In the end, Dr. Ballard proved that Jack Thayer was right and Beesley, Gracey, Lightoller and many others were wrong.

Q:    How bad was the suction as the stern of the Titanic sank underwater?

In scene 274, Jack Dawson says, "Take a deep breath and hold it right before we go into the water.  The ship will suck us down.  Kick for the surface and keep kicking.  Don't let go of my hand.  We're gonna make it Rose.  Trust me."

This was a legitimate concern of the passengers and crew.  "The captain-stoker now told the oarsmen to row away as hard as they could.  Two reasons seemed to make this a wise decision:  one that as she sank she would create such a wave of suction that boats, if not sucked under by being too near, would be in danger of being swamped by the wave her sinking would create..."  [The second reason was the fear of debris from a possible explosion.]  (Beesley, p. 46)

Actually, there was hardly any suction at all.  "When at last the waves washed over her rudder there wasn't the least bit of suction that I could feel.  She must have kept going just so slowly as she had been." (Bride, p. 318)  "Another survivor...relates that he had dived from the stern before she heeled over, and swam round under her enormous triple screws lifted by now high out of the water as she stood on end.  Fascinated by the extraordinary sight, he watched them up above his head, but presently realizing the necessity of getting away as quickly as possible, he started to swim from the ship, but as he did she dived forward, the screws passing near his head.  His experience is that not only was no suction present, but even a wave was created which washed him away from the place where she had gone down."  (Beesley, p. 70)

Q:    Did Quartermaster Hichens really tell Molly Brown to "shut that hole" in her face?

In scene 286, the women in boat #6 are listening to the screams of the people in the water.  Molly Brown wants to have the boat go back and rescue more people.  She says, "I don't understand a one of you.  What's the matter with you?  It's your men back there!  We got plenty a' room for more."  Hichens replies, "If you don't shut that hole in yer face, there'll be one less in this boat!"

Hichens never said this.  While fascinating to read, the passage about Brown and Hichens runs for several pages in Colonel Gracie's book and is too long to be reproduced here.  Hichens was described by Mrs. Candee as "...cowardly and almost crazed with fear all the time."  (Gracie, p. 179)  In fact, Molly Brown did more or less assume command of the boat in time, to the point where she threatened Hichens with being thrown overboard (Gracie, p. 182).  However, the line that Hichens says in the movie actually came from boat #8.  Mrs. J. Stuart White's testimony at the American inquiry:  "Our head seaman was giving orders and these men knew nothing about a boat.  They would say:  "If you don't stop talking through that hole in your face there will be one less in the boat."  We were in the hands of men of that kind."  (Gracie, p. 186)


Overall, I am impressed with Cameron's efforts, both in the writing and in the direction of the film.  It is obvious that he thoroughly researched the Titanic before writing the screenplay.  Naturally there are discrepancies between the recorded history and his movie (no one could make a movie of this magnitude and not have discrepancies).  The most serious blunder in the movie is the splitting of the hull into two pieces above water.  Even here, though, one must grant Cameron artistic license.  To film the ship splitting into two under water would have been technically difficult, even with small-scale models, and would not have added to the suspense in the movie.  Regardless, a job well done and a movie worth seeing.

Congratulations to Titanic, winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director!


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