The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Ghosts of the Abyss
Country: United States Release date: 31 March 2003 Director: James Cameron Cast: Bill Paxton, Lori Johnston and Lewis Abernathy
Plot: Academy Award® winning director and master storyteller James Cameron journeys back to the site of his greatest inspiration - the legendary wreck of the Titanic. With a team of the world's foremost historic and marine experts and friend Bill Paxton, he embarks on an unscripted adventure back to the final grave where nearly 1,500 souls lost their lives almost a century ago. Using state-of-the-art technology developed expressly for this expedition, Cameron and his crew are able to explore virtually all of the wreckage, inside and out, as never before. With the most advanced 3D photography, moviegoers will experience the ship as if they are part of the crew, right inside the dive subs. In this unprecedented motion picture event, made especially for IMAX 3D Theatres and specially outfitted 35mm 3D theaters across the country, Cameron and his team bring audiences to sights not seen since.
Trivia: The two robotic submarines in the film are named Jake and Elwood, a reference to The Blues Brothers.
Forensic Evidence of Heroism What does the lonely No.1 lifeboat davit tell us about Murdoch?
Ghosts of the Abyss is a 3D IMAX film by director James Cameron who journeys back to Titanic with friend and actor Bill Paxton and a team of the world's foremost historic and marine experts on an unscripted attempt to explore virtually all of the wreckage, inside and out using 3D photography. It also includes some dramatic recreations of events that took place that night.
During the making of this documentary, Cameron and historical advisor Parks Stephenson noticed that the No. 1 davit on the wreck is in the upright (retracted) position. This is the only davit on the wreck found to be in this position (the other davit from the same lifeboat station is gone). This means that unlike the other stations, the davit was brought back to an upright position to receive another boat; in this case, Collapsible A. The other stations, having already lowered their lifeboats, would have been left extended outward (as seen elsewhere on the wreck).
Parks Stephenson wrote to me regarding this:
"What this means is that we have concrete evidence that Collapsible A was in the process of being fitted in the davits when that part of the Boat Deck went under. This should be no surprise, as we already know that Collapsible A floated off right-side up. however, it never hurts to have forensic evidence corroborate the story. When Cameron examined the davit in 2001 (the "Ghosts of the Abyss" expedition), he saw in the retracted davit evidence to back the claims of Lightoller, Gracie and McGough who all claim that Murdoch was working the falls until the end.
"Now, this is not a "smoking gun," if you will, but in the balance of things, it weighs more heavily on the side of those who claim that Murdoch was working to launch boats until the deck went under. If the officer in charge of lowering the boats had shot himself, then the launching of Collapsible A might not have proceeded."
This is admittedly exciting evidence. Although it must be stated in fairness that Stephenson's statement that 'if the officer in charge of lowering the boats had shot himself, then the launching of Collapsible A might not have proceeded' does not really hold much weight. Work to launch the collapsible would still have taken place no matter what occured previous to it, including an officer's suicide, if such did take place. There were certainly enough men of ability in that area of the boat deck who would have tried to launch it even against all odds. However, the davit does provide support of what most Murdoch researchers already know: that Murdoch heriocally tried with all his might to launch as many starboard boats as possible. Whether he personally was involved in its placement or not, the retracted davit stands as a monument to his efforts on that night.
Stephenson also shared his thoughts regarding this evidence, the controversy regarding an 'apology' and also the making of Ghosts of the Abyss in the Encyclopedia Titanica discussion board. Here are some notable excerpts:
Dated: Monday, July 26, 2004
"Consider Cameron's portrayal of Murdoch in his 2003 documentary about Titanic, "Ghosts of the Abyss." In that film, Cameron speaks to the history of Titanic, rather than the fantasy. In GotA, Cameron speaks of Murdoch as a true hero, who spent his last moments working to launch lifeboats. If anyone is looking for physical evidence of Murdoch's last actions, the retracted davit standing ready to receive Collapsible A – that Cameron lingers on in GotA – is about as solid as we can expect.
"I have also talked with Jim Cameron in person about his portrayal of Murdoch in both the 1997 film and the 2003 documentary. Because of my association with Cameron through GotA, I have been accused by pundits of letting my admiration for Cameron blind me to Cameron’s “unjust” portrayal of Murdoch in “Titanic.” Whether or not this is true, the fact remains that my access to Cameron has given me a perspective that has not been filtered through or “spun” by the popular media. I can rightly assert that Cameron has expressed his sincere conviction that Murdoch was a true hero. He has confided that in private, but more importantly has expressed it publicly in a documentary for the large screen. For anyone searching for a retraction, one better than any disclaimer in a film's credit sequence can be found in GotA. Jim Cameron looked at the wreck in 2001 and saw in the retracted forward starboard davit proof of what Lightoller claimed about Murdoch's last moments. He included this in GotA in what has to be one of the documentary's most poignant moments. Cameron provides physical proof that would suggest that his earlier fictional portrayal of Murdoch was mistaken...in other words, he more strongly contradicts himself than any of his detractors could. In so doing, Cameron provides an essential piece of evidence that any historian who debates the “officer shooting” incident should consider.
Dated: Thursday, July 29, 2004
"I am not Cameron’s spokesman. I was not on the set of “Titanic.” My perspective comes from both listening to anecdotes from those who were on the “Titanic” set and my own observations as part of the “Ghosts” crew for “Ghosts of the Abyss.” From that perspective, I am under the impression that miscommunication is at the heart of much of the frustration surrounding this controversy. I am not aware of the specific reasons why Cameron did not respond personally to earlier requests to address the offending scenes, but I do know that it could be for only one of a multitude of reasons. Possibilities I can think of include: Cameron believed that the studio’s donation spoke for him; the studio did not want Cameron to address the issue personally, preferring for image concerns to handle it themselves; Cameron did not want to set a precedent of apologising for every misrepresentation of a fictitious character because of the follow-on claims that might follow…it could be any one of these, or none of these. I just don’t know. My point is that silence on Cameron’s part may not be what was assumed. Most interpretations that I have either read or heard of attributed Cameron’s silence on the matter to an assumed lack of care about Murdoch’s legacy. I do not think that has been the case.
"As one who has focused on and learned to admire Murdoch during the course of my own research, I was concerned about this. From the moment when I first met Cameron in 2001, I looked for an opportunity to discuss the matter with him. I didn’t actually have that opportunity until two years later. The reason for the delay? Cameron is a driven man. He crams more work into the day than most can manage in a week. Whether we were in the Earthship offices in Malibu, on the set at Fox Studios, or even in the studio commissary catching a bite to eat, Cameron was always busy with something. And if he wasn’t busy, there was never a shortage of people nearby clamouring for attention. I’m not saying that Cameron was distant ...he always had a friendly word or two to say, just to let you know that he hadn’t forgotten you, but an in-depth conversation not directly related to the immediate job at hand? Rare.
"However, the opportunity did at last arrive during additional shooting on a small set in Burbank in early 2003. Because these were “pick-up” scenes, only a portion of the crew was there. Additional Marconi Room scenes were on the Call Sheet, so I was invited to help re-assemble the set. Cameron was the most relaxed I have ever seen ...usually, he’s focused on the task at hand, but on that day the shooting schedule was light and the number of studio reps was minimal. Some of the Marconi Room props had been damaged in transport from their display in Foxploration to the Burbank set, so I set to work with some of the stage crew to repair them. Cameron came over to show me a better and quicker way to use the glue gun. As we waited for the glue to dry and the crew to mount the props to the stage walls, we had an opportunity to chat. This, at last, was my opportunity to bring up the Murdoch portrayal.
"I can’t tell you exactly what he said, for a couple of reasons. One, I don’t have his permission to publicly quote from a private conversation. Two, I was not in a position to take notes, so the details have since been lost to my imperfect memory. I can, however, relate what I took away from the conversation. I learned that Cameron was deeply concerned by the allegations that he had besmirched Murdoch’s reputation. He did not understand the aftermath at first, because in his eyes, the bribery and the suicide were fictitious subplots for a fictitious film. They were not supposed to be taken as history. He did come up with that treatment in order to add to the emotion of his love story, and when he presented it to his historical consultants, none of them could refute it with evidence. This is not to say that any of the consultants recommended that he include the scenes, just that no one could say for sure that they couldn’t have happened. Even though he didn’t have wholehearted backing from his consultants, Cameron decided to proceed with the scenes because they seemed to work within the context of the overall story about love triumphing over adversity.
"The backlash concerning these scenes was, therefore, a surprise. Cameron’s sole intent for the bribery scene was to demonstrate once again how much of a despicable cad Cal was. The suicide scene was intended to draw some of the actual history – that of the survivor correspondence that reported an officer shooting – into the ongoing plot. Neither scene was meant to reflect poorly on Murdoch’s character. Remember, some of the authors of the aforementioned survivor correspondence saw, from their 1912 perspective, the suicide as a noble act.
"I, unfortunately, did not ask Cameron about the events surrounding the public calls for a response on the matter. I vaguely remember him saying something about how he thought that the studio donation was appropriate, but I can’t remember exactly how he phrased it. What did strike me was that he said that his decision to include those scenes was probably mistaken ...a sentiment that he would repeat almost exactly in public in Southampton a year-and-a-half later. He also told me at that time that he would be sure to give Murdoch the correct treatment in “Ghosts of the Abyss,” especially since “GotA” was a documentary and free of any fictitious trappings. From what I gathered, this was Cameron’s sincere gesture to right a perceived wrong.
"So, from my perspective, I see both sides of this controversy with sincere appreciation for Murdoch’s legacy. There may have been some incorrect assumptions made on both sides, due to the lack of personal communication. I do not know, and therefore cannot speak to, exactly why that communications bridge couldn’t have been forged early. Had it been, I don’t think there would be a controversy today.
"It is quite possible that the controversy had a positive effect. Cameron was aware of the controversy when he revisited the wreck in 2001. This is my own speculation and I could completely wrong in this, but I would wager that the controversy caused Cameron to consider the retracted forward starboard lifeboat davit in a new light when he came across it on the wreck. Again, that’s just my own speculation, but the fact remains that there have been a number of visitors to the wreck, and Cameron was the first (as far as I know) who saw the davit as a tribute to Murdoch’s professionalism and evidence that supports Lightoller’s account of Murdoch’s last moments.
Dated: Monday, January 8, 2007
"Cameron's comments about Murdoch in his two documentaries were not offered by way of apology... they were a heartfelt and sincere interpretation of the evidence that came to his knowledge since his 1997 film. When one considers what Murdoch managed to do and then see the remnants of his last moments on the wreck itself, one cannot help but be moved. Anyone intrigued enough by the negative portrayal of Murdoch in the ficticious film should have been inspired enough to follow through with their own research and maybe even catch the later interpretations. I suspect that the flap over Murdoch went unnoticed by over 99% of the audience attracted to the film...it is only really argued over by people who know better, anyway.
"Cameron's portrayal of the ficticious Murdoch was offered to audiences 10 years ago. That film no longer belongs to Cameron...it now belongs to the Paramount and Fox studios. Cameron's reversed the ficticious portrayal of Murdoch and offered up a more noble, heroic figure in the two films that he has made with his own production company since that time. What, may I ask, do you suggest be done?
"I ask these questions because I felt as you did that Murdoch was ill-treated in the film. I respect Murdoch more than anyone else aboard the ship that night. I still don't like what Murdoch was made to do in the 1997 film. But you know, I just had to get over it. By the time I was able to discuss Murdoch with Cameron in person, Cameron was already aware of what good Murdoch did that night. About all that was left for me to do was to make sure that the Murdoch of the documentaries wore more correct insignia on his uniform.
In summary, the forensic evidence as portrayed in Ghosts of the Abyss confirms what any serious researcher probably already concludes as fact: that First Officer William Murdoch was nothing less than heroic that night in his launching of the starboard lifeboats. It does not disprove any suicide theory, as maybe some may hope, but the No.1 davit frozen in the retracted position attests to the fact that Murdoch's orders were carried out - if not personally, then by other crew - to the very end.