In “Titanic”, did Jack have to die? We watched James Cameron’s scientific investigation
For a quarter of a century, tears have flowed over Hollywood’s re-enactment of a very real tragedy, the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912. A quarter of a century too that the director of the film, James Cameron, is told that he could have saved, in addition to his moving heroine Rose, played by Kate Winslet, Jack, the handsome lover of the latter, incarnated by Leonardo DiCaprio. The theory of these fans? There was room for two on Rose’s makeshift raft.
The filmmaker has sometimes been annoyed by a controversy that he even called in 2019 “stupid”. However, the sexagenarian, known to be a perfectionist, is not the type to leave a problem unsolved: he had a scientific experiment carried out in order to close the debate once and for all. It is the highlight of a program broadcast this Sunday, February 5 on the American channel National Geographic and which we watched before its programming in France.
In “Titanics”, Rose manages to survive by perching on one end of the wreckage. “A scrap of wood too small and too unstable to carry them both”, insists James Cameron in the documentary which coincides with the 25th anniversary of his first big box office success. Jack gives up, sacrifices himself, because his survival, he judges, “would have been at the cost of her own life”. Clutching those of his beloved in his hands, he dies of hypothermia in the freezing water, like many victims of the shipwreck.
For his investigation, the director had an identical reproduction of the piece of door to which the two protagonists cling. The raft is placed in a swimming pool located in the New Zealand laboratory of Professor James Cotter, who conducts research on “human tolerance and adaptation” to “adverse” conditions. In particular, the effects of cold.
The team then asks two young people wearing sensors to immerse themselves in water at 10°C and try out several positions on the board. “For each of the tests, we conducted an experiment twice as long to approximate the effects of -2°C in Arctic water”, comments James Cameron. True to his original staging, the director chose guinea pigs of the same age, weight and height as Jack and Rose. He also asked them to wear outfits similar to those of the characters. Jack being dressed much more lightly than Rose, his “stuntman” is quickly seized with violent tremors.
Position after position, cold experts are studying how long it would take for Jack to drop his temperature to 35°C, i.e. in a state of clinical hypothermia. In the configuration of the film, with the hero immersed up to his neck, the dangerous level is reached in twenty minutes. The young man is extracted from the water without waiting. “There is a real element of danger in this experiment,” warns James Cameron.
A slim hope
What if the two lovers had managed to both climb onto the raft? At the cost of many efforts, their doubles manage to position their trunks on the door, which leans but remains stable. Let the fans not rejoice too quickly: Jack’s temperature then drops less suddenly, but it is not enough because, as James Cameron recalls, “it took two hours to start rescuing the people who were in the ‘water “.
After many tries, the miracle happens nevertheless! When, in a very precise position, Rose gives her life jacket to her companion to protect him from the cold, the temperature of the latter ends up stabilizing. “Jack could have lived,” James Cameron eventually concedes, “but there are a lot of variables.”
“We can’t possibly simulate the terror, the adrenaline, all sorts of things that would have worked against them,” argues the director and screenwriter. According to him, it wouldn’t have been in Jack’s character to endanger Rose by taking her vest. He concludes, laughing: “Based on what I know today, I would have made the raft smaller. So that there is no doubt! In France, the documentary will be broadcast in the spring on the National Geographic channel, on a date to be announced later.