[16 August 2006]
“With the attention that has been given to Titanic, you would almost think that the story has been told when in fact it hasn’t.”
—John Chatterton, expedition leader
“Who knows? They might get lucky today and find that one little critical piece of evidence that will change the whole story of Titanic.”
—Ralph White, master cinematographer
Apparently, some of us just can’t get enough of the Titanic, the ship that hit the bottom of Atlantic on the night of April 14, 1912, taking with her more than 1,500 souls. There have been other shipwrecks which have caused a greater loss of life, but for a number of reasons, the Titanic will always continue to fascinate us much more than any other maritime disaster. This is probably why the History channel was willing to finance yet another expedition to the bottom of the Atlantic to again sift through the crumbling wreck that once was considered an unsinkable ship.
This 2005 expedition actually began in the summer of 2000 when David Concannon, an attorney and Titanic enthusiast who was part of a Titanic expedition, allegedly discovered something which he referred to as “ribbons of steel” on the far south side of the wreck site. He believed these “ribbons” proved that the Titanic had not only scraped the side of an iceberg, but that she had, in fact, ridden over it, sustaining deadly damage to the bottom of the ship.
This “bottom damage” theory was difficult to prove, however, because when Concannon reached the surface, he realized that the film in the camera he had been using to record the evidence hadn’t been advancing. He now had nothing except the memory of an image and a passion for a new theory regarding the cause of the sinking. His passion must have been contagious because in the summer of 2005, the History Channel decided to finance a Titanic expedition with the express purpose of discovering the truth of Concannon’s theory.
Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces chronicles this trip in detail, interspersing expedition footage with a narrative of Titanic history, which includes interviews with Titanic authors, children of Titanic survivors, and also the youngest and only remaining Titanic survivor (as of summer, 2005), Melvina Dean.
The film has some interesting points, but if you’ve already seen the A&E documentary (1994), Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces pales in comparison on almost every level. The basic narrative of the A&E contains more information, more old pictures, more author interviews, and more survivor interviews and more expedition excitement (the Ballard expedition which first discovered the Titanic). There is just more of everything in the A&E film, and the Titanic story included in Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces suffers significantly in comparison.
The reason that comparisons on this level are ultimately unfair is because the narrative in the two films serve quite different purposes. The A&E seeks to tell the whole story of the Titanic from start to finish and includes Ballard expedition footage as the final part of the Titanic’s story, not as the main focus of the film.
The narrative focus of Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces, on the other hand, is designed to examine the validity of Concannon’s “ribbons of steel” theory and so its main thrust is the History Channel expedition, not the Titanic story. Titanic history weaves in and out of this film, ostensibly to serve as background material, but in reality, it serves a more mundane purpose: to break up the expedition footage which teeters on the brink of being boring more than once. How many different ways can you possibly pose this basic question: “Would they find Concannon’s ribbons of steel?” Apparently quite a few. Yawn! For much of the film, the hype regarding the importance of the expedition seems rather tediously forced.
Warning: Spoiler, dead ahead!
To make matters even more tiresome, the ribbons were not found on voyages one and two. But during the third—and necessarily last—trip down to the wreckage site (storms were brewing and heading their way), the expedition traveled to a part of the site which had never been explored (or even seen) before and found something very unexpected and interesting: an entire section of the bottom of the ship, from the port to the starboard.
After analyzing this find, it became clear that this huge piece of metal was a heretofore missing link in technical Titanic history: the fracture point of the breakage. This piece of the Titanic not only helped prove that the ship actually had split in two before sinking, but it also answered other questions such as to what degree the ship had been tilting before she did break. Additionally, it offered a compelling explanation for the mangled state of the fracture points of both halves of the ship. The discovery doesn’t “change the whole story of the Titanic”, but it does shed some new, significant light on the manner in which the great ship went down.
Although those involved in the expedition continually touted their initial mission as absolutely crucial to help further understand the great wreckage, they all seemed rather relieved at the sudden U-turn of events. By the film’s end, the forced, self-important intensity is thankfully eased and everything concludes on a more mellow note with this thought: “Regardless of what new evidence is found or discoveries made, however much we learn about that night, it seems there will always be more we wish could know about the Titanic.”
How true. So it is fortunate for Titanic and maritime history enthusiasts that the DVD extras on Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces include a fascinating history of each of the three sister ships of the White Star Line: the Titanic, the Britannic, and the Olympic. Although there were many connections between the three ships (especially regarding family resemblances), one startling thread that ran between them all was a woman named Violet Jessop who served on all three ships and miraculously managed to survive all three (it would actually be more accurate to say 2½) White Star-related disasters, living well into old age.
The only ship in the White Star triad to live half as long as Jessop was the Olympic: the untimely death of the Titanic is part of the reason that she, too, will always be the stuff of legend.