Film: Titanic: is it really the sail of the century?

Is it possible for a film to be the biggest box-office success ever ... and still be a turkey? John Lyttle says yes
On Monday night, James Cameron's Titanic won 11 Oscars. This is the equal - as every bright movie buff has rushed to point out - of William Wyler's Ben Hur. Indeed. What hasn't been pointed is just quite how apt this linkage is.

Wyler's less than Roman holiday was also the most notoriously troubled production of its era. It went millions over budget and was months overdue. Insiders predicted box office disaster. It, too, went on to become the highest grossing movie of its time and won most of its Academy Awards in the technical categories. There are other clear similarities. Like Titanic, Ben Hur is a goddamn lousy, clodhoppingly square piece of over- inflated film-making. One watches it now with weary impatience and wonders what possible entertainment value it could have afforded, excepting the pleasure of scale. Today, the film has no reputation to speak of, never appears on any Top 10 list and is critically considered a low in a Master's career.

A prediction: with time, Titanic will one day, like Ben Hur, be remembered for what it really is. That is, once the hype, gold-plated statuettes and worthiness - at the ceremony Cameron asked for, yuk, 10 seconds silence in honour of the vessel's dead - have been forgotten, Titanic will be revealed as logy, pompous and way too indulgently long; a movie where the only H20 that truly spells danger is the water you're desperate to pass as the ship of fools chugs leadenly into its third hour.

The Titanic/Ben Hur parallels are endless. And highly instructive. For instance, both were helmed by men with legendary - notorious, really - reputations for perfectionism; geniuses to some, sadists to others. Both won prizes for Best Bastard, otherwise known as Best Director. Both films feature characters it would be generous to describe as barely breathing (Titanic cost $200 million, 10 cents of which was splurged on the script) and both suffer from actors who are uncomfortably aware that they are appearing in works destined for the ages. (Here, literary Wyler is well ahead of tech-head Cameron, as he could actually motivate actors. Cameron can only tell them where to move.)

Ben Hur's male lead, Charlton Heston, won for Best Actor. (Why? Don't ask me ... it's a mystery.) Titanic's male lead, Leonardo DiCaprio, wasn't nominated and didn't win, the world wisely recognising that his ability to bob about in the Atlantic meant he was most likely wood(en) or, at the very least, a drip in the ocean. And, yes, Hugh Griffith captured the Best Supporting title that eluded Gloria Stewart. But back to striking similarities and identical flaws: how Ben Hur and Titanic confuse their budgets (vast) and aspirations (epic) with importance. Importance... the word Hollywood shamelessly chooses when it means pomposity.

Ben Hur is a film which sincerely believes its subject matter - the roots of Christianity - should be matched by a monumentalism befitting the Son of God. The drama has no grip, but size, as always, matters: it is, after all, cinema's basic, eternal appeal. It mattered particularly then because Ben Hur humongousness (humongous meaning "huge, enormous; exceptionally bad") was at least partially intended to fight television's capture of a previously loyal mass audience. The battle was won - but we all know how the war went.

How ironic then that TV, the upstart medium Ben Hur temporarily bested, should now offer the only screen on which to view it. A small and merciless screen which strips away technical impressiveness and diminishes the gigantic set-pieces until nothing salvageable remains of the 11-time Oscar winner save a single enduring sequence: the chariot race. And Wyler, for the record, didn't direct that. Send your congratulations to the stunt men and second unit. The illusion of a masterpiece is gone with the rewind; Variety's assertion that "the big difference between Ben Hur and other spectacles ... is its concern for human beings" proves to be exactly that. An assertion. If you don't believe me, go rent the video. And Variety, of course, has made precisely the same assertion about Titanic.

Well, Titanic is in - pardon moi - the same boat. Built to the Ben Hur formula, Hollywood again seeks to reinvent the wheel and ends up repeating itself: more is more. Beset by competing multi-media - how do we lure the kids from their video games? - Titanic mines the obvious meaning of its title. Its drawing power is the massive, suitably modernised by computer-generated FX. FX, by the by, that are as obvious as the title; "powerful" yet profoundly unimaginative, with not a hint of the beauty and poetry often inherent in terror. Instead, you are invited to ooh and coo as passengers fly from the upended stern to their icy deaths. But they're not passengers - they're props. (Can we have 10 seconds silence?)

One feels moved to mention this because the reviews have failed to. Another reason why hype should be left to settle like a broken ocean liner on the sea bed before judgment is rendered. It's sad but true: the latest crop of film critics have about as much a sense of history as, say, James Cameron. Like him, they seem to believe that the tragedy of the Titanic, like the tale of Jesus, demands the huge as a mark of reverence.

They forget that the previous and infinitely more affecting versions - the 1953 Titanic and the 1958 A Night to Remember especially - weren't conceived as blockbusters. Possibly on the sensible grounds that proportion shouldn't be permitted to overshadow people. A Night to Remember doesn't even attempt to fictionalise, as the earlier Titanic did and the later Titanic does.

A Night to Remember tells the story best, though this is not to slight the 1953 production. There's nothing wrong with fictionalisation when it engages the gut as superbly as the tale of Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb's collapsing marriage or - does this ring a diving bell? - the doomed shipboard lurve between student Robert Wagner and doe-eyed Audrey Dalton.

Exploitation, too, is integral to the subject, but to reduce this maiden and final voyage to a piddling, pre-fab romance - Romeo and Juliet Stop For Ice - is an insult. Nearly as insulting as the script's notion that (well born) women need (real, rough trade) men to bring forth their inner selves, an idea widely reckoned to be 'romantic' and to speak for a new mood in the culture. Yet Cameron is being congratulated - not to mention rewarded - for singularly failing to deliver what A Night To Remember and Titanic Mark One casually took for granted: the human story, the warmth to melt the iceberg. Perhaps punters were smarter back then. Certainly, they never took Ben Hur, despite its content, seriously as either a religious tract or guide to the zeitgeist. Titanic's unprecedented success, though, is taken very seriously indeed and is being variously attributed to the discovery of emotional intelligence, a return to selflessness and a subliminal seeking after the after-life, the sweeping, weeping spiritual. (See how the lovers are reunited in the beyond, though not, understandably, in a sequel.)

But then maybe this is the genuine cultural shift Titanic marks. That big must not only be better; a record breaking box office gross and 11 Oscars means a movie should be taken at its own elevated estimation. And it works. Watch as minds are turned to mush. Or cruelly exposed as mush: on Wednesday the Daily Mail's film critic wanted to know if Titanic was the greatest movie ever made. (Dear Christopher Tookey: no.)

If we are to grant that question credence, it's not the ship that's sunk. It's us. Sunk in the shallows.


Most Ruthless Exploitation of a Historical Tragedy: Titanic

Barely Original Song: "My Movie Will Go On (And On)" James Cameron

The See, Long-Term Immersion in Water Really Does Wrinkle Your Skin Award: Gloria Stewart

Best Double Bill: Titanic/ A Bigger Splash

Most Stunning Repeal of the Law of Gravity: All the brave souls who scrabble to the stern as Titanic up ends. Honourable mention: Kate Winslet's chest

Most Eagerly Anticipated Appearance by an Iceberg: Titanic

The I Invented Waterproof Slap Award: Kate Winslet

The Wordiest, Worthiest Speech While Croaking From Hypothermia Award: Leonardo DiCapprio

Best Adapted Screenplay: Titanic for its bold $200 million rewrite of Captain Pugwash

Sentimental Ending Most Likely To Have Punters Using Their Popcorn Container as a Sick Bag: Titanic

Best Foreign Film: Le Titanique