There is still huge global interest in the legendary Belfast-built liner, but few people seem interested in life-size replicas of it
James Cameron opted to dispense with the bad news first.
“Firstly,” the acclaimed director told Hollywood moguls who’d gathered to discuss his latest project, “this will be the most expensive movie ever made.
“Secondly, everyone already knows the story and how it ends. And, thirdly, there’s absolutely no chance of a sequel...”
By this time, the representatives of both 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures were creased up with laughter.
Eventually, one of them recovered sufficiently to ask: “Is there any good news, Jim?”
Cameron: “Yes; I believe that, if you give me the money to make it, this will be the biggest grossing movie in history.”
He was right on both counts. ‘Titanic’ was, at the time of its release in 1997, the most expensive cinematic production ever — needing two studios to bankroll it — but it also went on to be a biggest box-office bonanza since moving pictures began.
Even the execrable theme song, My Heart Will Go On, topped the charts all over the world.
Perhaps more importantly, the movie’s success gave Belfast belated pride in the legendary ill-fated vessel.
For over 80 years, it had been something Harland & Wolff would rather you didn’t mention; a massive cupboard with over 1,500 skeletons in it.
Yes, she was “fine when she left us,” having vacated the Thompson dry dock for the final time in early April 1912 as (at 269m long and 28.2m wide) the largest moving object on the planet — and a proud, tangible symbol of turn-of-the century Ulster industry.
Never mind the magnificent vessel itself; even the massive Arrol Gantry used in the construction of the White Star Line Olympic-class liners — and which lasted until the 1960s — was itself a feat of jaw-dropping engineering brilliance.
Rather annoyingly, Cameron’s record-breaking movie makes only one, rather oblique reference to ‘Belfast’ in its titanic 3 hour, 15 minute running time.
Since its worldwide box-office success, however, Queen’s Island has been rechristened Titanic Quarter, ‘Titanic Belfast’ is a global tourist attraction and the nearby ‘Titanic Studios’ and ‘Titanic Hotel’ are regularly frequented by movie and TV stars.
The enduring, eerily fascinating story of the awesome, supposedly ‘unsinkable’ ship that perished on her maiden voyage has become a metaphor for humanity itself; a chilling testimony to greed, class snobbery, arrogance and catastrophic disrespect for the destructive forces of nature.
The appeal of the Titanic name is, nevertheless, not our sole property.
Many others have cashed in — and a lot quicker than we did — on the legend of the world’s most famous and still most-talked-about ship.
The last three decades have spawned exhibitions of Titanic memorabilia, eye-wateringly expensive diving expeditions to the wreck in the north Atlantic, books, documentaries, video games, auctions, submarine grave robbing and even a recently released horror movie, Titanic 666, which I can’t see myself finding the time to watch.
Last year, Lego, having for years watched others put together Titanic replicas out of their plastic bricks, released their own official 9,090 piece set, which has proved to be a stunning commercial success.
But whatever happened to the two full-size replicas, the projects for which were ‘launched’ years ago in Australia and China?
Have they turned out to be as ill-fated as the original ship?
The short answer is yes.
It’s now over a decade since Aussie tycoon Clive Palmer announced plans for ‘Titanic II’, an authentic, full-size, seaworthy and impeccably recreated replica of the original luxury liner, right down to the famous grand staircase, Café Parisien and Verandah Café.
Palmer’s shipping company is called Blue Star Line — a shameless, obvious nod to the White Star moguls who, stung by the launch of rival Cunard’s two stunning ocean-going liners Mauretania and Lusitania in the early 20th century, vowed to go one better with their trio of Olympic Class leviathans Titanic, Olympic and Britannic (which was requisitioned as a First World War hospital ship and sank by a German mine off the Greek coast in 1916, killing 30 people).
The mining mogul hired a team of historians to design the nine-deck, 840-room floating six-star hotel, which would be longer, wider and heavier than the first Titanic and boast high-tech satellite controls, digital navigation, radar systems, diesel-electric propulsion system and — perhaps most importantly — sufficient lifeboats.
According to Palmer, the audacious project would be built in China, accommodate 2,435 passengers and 500 crew and make its maiden voyage in 2016.
But we’re still waiting for even a glimpse of Titanic II’s construction, let alone seeing it on the ocean wave.
To be fair, the maritime media were always sceptical of Palmer —who is well-known down under for his publicity stunts and ostentatious, failed projects — pulling this one off.
Yet the billionaire insisted in 2015 that construction of the new Titanic had merely been delayed by an expensive dispute between himself and a Chinese mining company over royalty payments — and it was reported that the £500m vessel would take to the seas in 2022.
So where is it, Clive?
Blue Star Line’s website no longer carries media reports about the project, and a company spokesperson admitted to the Guardian in 2019 that no shipbuilders had even been contracted to build the thing.
Reports in Australia suggest that Palmer has got cold feet over his vanity project’s Edwardian-period details and colonial-era elegance which, frankly, are not in keeping with prospective passengers’ modern-day cruise ship expectations.
Air conditioning is one thing, but a ship with no televisions and no wifi in its rooms could, after the inevitable, initial quirky interest, morph into a floating white elephant.
And although Titanic was an eighth wonder of the world when she slid into Belfast’s Victoria Channel in May 1911, scarcely anyone bats an eyelid these days when far bigger cruise ships such as Anthem of the Seas — a staggering 348m long and 41m wide — regularly dock here.
At least work actually started on the ‘other’ full-scale Titanic replica at the Romandisea Seven Star International Culture Tourism Resort and theme park in China’s Sichuan Province.
For the last eight years, however, the insensitively named, quarter-built ‘Unsinkable Titanic’ has been rusting in what is probably the world’s largest inland dry dock. With the nearest ocean nearly 1,000 miles away, the Seven Star Energy Investment Group can at least be sure that their vessel will never meet a watery end.
The £150m project itself, however, looks sunk. For ‘Unsinkable’, read ‘unsustainable’.
This replica, with banqueting halls, theatres and observation platforms where visitors can recreated the iconic Jack and Rose “king of the world” moment from the movie, was slated to open in 2017, three years after details of the new ‘ship’ were announced at a lavish press conference in Hong Kong.
There was an audible gasp in the room, however, when Seven Star boss Su Shaojun revealed that a replica iceberg would also be built, to help ‘simulate’ what was, in 1912, an unparalleled maritime disaster.
“When the ship hits the iceberg, it will shake, it will tumble,” said Mr Shaojun, displaying the complete lack of self-awareness that makes you wonder how someone like that got so far in multinational business.
“We will let people experience water coming in by using sound and light effects,” he went on: “They will think ‘The water will drown me, I must escape with my life...’”
Needless to say, this didn’t go down particularly well, especially here. Former Belfast Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers, whose grandfather had worked on the Titanic, told the Belfast Telegraph the idea was “disgraceful and shameful.”
Actor Bernard Hill, who played Captain Edward Smith in the 1997 movie and took part in the Hong Kong launch, initially rejected suggestions that the replica iceberg idea was inappropriate but later regretted his involvement in the project.
He clearly wasn’t the only one.
Speaking of regrets, it was legendary Harland & Wolff chairman William Pirrie — another former Belfast Lord Mayor — who coined the ‘unsinkable’ phrase about the three Olympic Class liners, something he’d regret for the rest of his days.
Ironically, Olympic — only fractionally smaller than sister ship Titanic and launched from Belfast almost a year earlier — initially gave Lord Pirrie’s fatalistic boast justifiable merit when it was struck by the military cruiser HMS Hawke in the Solent in September 1911.
The vessel’s revolutionary self-sealing bulkheads had done their job, but the Olympic was nevertheless badly damaged in the collision and limped back to Belfast for repairs — which would require parts initially earmarked for Titanic and would thus delay the larger vessel’s original launch date.
Had that not happened, Lord Pirrie would have been a passenger on Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage; instead, he was at home in Northern Ireland, recovering from a prostate operation.
He did, however, die at sea, having caught pneumonia off the coast of Cuba during a business trip in June 1924.
His remains were brought back across the Atlantic... in the unsinkable RMS Olympic.