My Titanic Case Study

Have you been hearing and seeing a lot of news about the RMS Titanic lately? The reason is because April 15 will mark 100 years since the sinking of the luxury liner, killing 1,514 people. There are new books, new documentaries, new television specials, revivals of the Titanic musical, and a 3D re-release of James Cameron's hit movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In 1997, when that film first came out, I was a graduate student, studying for my Master's Degree. The Titanic nostalgia is bringing back memories of one of my projects for my Media Research Methods class, a study I conducted called "History in the Movies: A Case Study and Its Impact on Teenaged Viewers."

My objective was to examine the depiction of historical events in motion pictures and the effect on teenage viewers. I questioned whether film encouraged a desire for further knowledge about the events depicted on screen and whether viewers perceived the cinematic retelling of history as "truth." I selected Titanic as my case study, not realizing that it would turn out to be such a blockbuster.  Even though it was a pop cultural phenomenon, I believed then and still do now that the conclusions drawn from my research would be applicable even if another film based on an event in history had been used as a case study.

What impact does the movie Titanic have on young viewers' perception of the historical facts of the tragic sinking of the ship a century ago? How do they react to seeing events from history re-created on the big screen? How do they determine what is inspired by truth and what is fictionalized for dramatic effect? Do they actually learn more from movies than they do from history books?

I tested a questionnaire on twenty people, age 16 to 20, and then surveyed students at five local high schools, receiving 213 handwritten responses. I tried to determine the differences, if any, among subjects who had different exposure to the Titanic story (those who saw the movie vs. those who didn't but studied the tragedy in school). My hypothesis was that young people who saw a visual re-enactment of a historical event would retain just as much specific detail as those who read about those facts.

Here are some excerpts from my conclusions:

"Even though a majority of the public is under the belief that films present flawed depictions of historical events, moviegoers still retain a lot of facts that they see on the screen...Stories told on the big screen will be remembered and often believed...In many ways, movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Chaplin are no more flawed than written biographies and textbooks. An 'author' is responsible for retelling the facts of history, and it is all subject to human error and misinterpretation. Yet, since young people respond so well to cinema, it may prove to be a useful tool in teaching history...

"All historians are storytellers...The storytelling skills of filmmakers should be an example of what attracts young people's attention. While maintaining a vigilant eye on accuracy, film should be used in conjunction with other tools to teach history...Is the glorification of our American forefathers in history books any more accurate than depictions of Moses by Charlton Heston or Jim Morrison by Val Kilmer?...If nothing else, cinema can at least be used as a starting point for discussion and debate. Is that not, after all, one of the basic elements of learning?"

What do you think?


Anonymous said…
Try explaining the actual history of the Civil War riots to someone who has seen the Gangs of New York.

Sometimes films turn people into idiots.