By autumn 1977, author Clive Cussler was the toast of the publishing world. Following a decade of writing and two moderately successful novels, his third book, Raise The Titanic! was a runaway bestseller. Its popularity was a contrast to Cussler’s earlier books, which had earned him a relatively meagre $5,000. But those earlier adventures – The Mediterranean Caper and Iceberg – helped establish the daring hero Dirk Pitt, a practical, earthy hero designed as a counterpoint to the suave, refined James Bond.
For Raise The Titanic!, Cussler dreamed up a scenario in which Pitt headed up a multi-billion-dollar operation to find and recover the doomed luxury liner, which sank in 1912. Their goal: to recover a mysterious, incredibly rare substance called byzantium from the ship’s belly – a substance capable of “rendering nuclear war obsolete.”
Cussler didn’t necessarily expect Raise The Titanic! to do much better than his earlier novels, but the book was so successful that, by 1977, the publisher Bantam stepped in to hatch an $840,000 deal for the paperback rights.
“I was dumbfounded” Cussler told a newspaper in 1977. “It was such a far-out idea that I thought nobody would buy it. I didn’t realize so many people have with that grand old ship.”
Indeed, one person attracted by the book’s allure (after a bit of coaxing) was Britain’s Lord Grade, a film and television producer who had plans to turn Raise The Titanic! into the kind of starry, glamorous adventure movie that had was all the rage in the 1970s. The deal Grade signed with Cussler wasn’t quite as lucrative as the Bantam proposal – the Titanic movie rights were snapped up for $450,000 – but the author was nevertheless a legitimately wealthy man.
“We did buy a new refrigerator,” Cussler said of the life changes his new fortune brought. “We still eat out only once a week, usually at McDonald’s.”
Despite his simple culinary tastes, Cussler recognised that Raise TheTitanic! would be hard to adapt, particularly given the expensive special effects required to realise the book’s pivotal sequence.
“The film is supposed to cost between $12 and $15 million, which is difficult for me to believe,” Cussler told the Associated Press. “The special effects will be enormous, especially in two scenes; when the ship comes up to the surface, and when it is towed into New York harbor.”
Nevertheless, production on Raise The Titanic ploughed on. Grade brought in American producer William Frye to help guide the project; Frye’s most recent hits at that point were the disaster sequels Airport ‘75 and Airport ‘77 – the latter film, curiously enough, about a rescue team’s efforts to dredge a sunken passenger jet off the ocean floor.
Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, On The Beach, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) was originally going to direct, but he was soon ousted due to a dispute over the movie’s scale miniature effects. Kramer was replaced by Jerry Jameson, a veteran of TV (Six Million Dollar Man, McCloud, Ironside, Hawaii Five-O) who’d just directed the Frye-produced Airport ‘77.
The change in directors seemed to be the symptom of a production struggling to come to terms with itself. Before shooting had even began, the budget had grown to a reported $20 million according to Alexander Walker’s book, National Heroes. The script had gone through numerous rewrites and passed through the hands of multiple screenwriters; some reports suggest that 10 writers had made a pass at writing Raise The Titanic. Others tell us that as many as 17 writers were involved.
There also appeared to be a bit of disagreement over who would star in the film. Cussler had originally imagined James Gardner or Steve McQueen in the lead as Dirk Pitt; McQueen apparently turned the role down, so in the end, the producers settled for the slightly less famous Richard Jordan, whose films at the time included Logan’s Run and A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.
As Cussler predicted, though, it was the special effects that wound up costing Raise The Titanic’s makers a fortune. Headed up by model and mechanical effects supervisor John Richardson, who’d created the effects for Moonraker, Raise The Titanic‘s VFX cost millions. For the triumphant sequence where the Titanic is raised from the deep, $5 million was spent on building a scale replica of the ship that was a shade over 55 feet long and weighed 10 tonnes. Artist and Titanic expert Ken Marschall was hired to ensure the accuracy of the model’s every aspect; after all, if the Titanic didn’t look convincing on the big screen, the efforts would all be for nought.
There was, however, a problem: the Titanic replica was so gargantuan that the film’s makers were forced to build an equally huge tank capable of housing it.
A tank was duly built on the lot of Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta at a cost of $3.3 million; that princely sum resulted in a vat approximately 350 feet long by 250 feet wide and 35 feet deep. With it, Richardson and his team could submerge and raise the Titanic model as many times as they liked – which was just as well; it apparently took 50 takes before a satisfactory shot of the re-emerging Titanic was finally captured.
Raise The Titanic’s makers also had to find a full-scale ship which could pass for the real Titanic – one that hero Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan) and his team could explore in the movie’s eventful final third. Eventually, the filmmakers hit on an old scrapped vessel called the SS Athinai, which they found languishing in a ship graveyard in Athens. Unfortunately, certain details on the Athinai didn’t quite match those on the Titanic model already built, so the model was altered to fit the full-scale ship – much to the chagrin of Ken Marschall, who’d spent all those hours ensuring the miniature looked as close to the real Titanic as possible. (Just to rub salt in the wound, an expensive effects sequence, which showed the once pristine Titanic sinking beneath the ocean waves, was cut from the final print.)
By the time Raise The Titanic was ready for release in 1980, the budget had ballooned to what was then reported as something in the region of $30-32 million – an extraordinary sum for the time. More recent estimates place the final figure even higher – somewhere closer to $36 million or even $40 million. To put that budget into perspective, consider the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, also released in 1980 – even that film, with all its Tauntauns, At-Ats and Lightsaber battles, cost somewhere in the region of $18 million to $33 million.
Nevertheless, William Frye remained upbeat as Raise The Titanic’s release approached. The film got a bit of free publicity when it emerged that a real-life expedition was being undertaken to find the Titanic (bear in mind that, at this point in time, the ship still hadn’t been precisely located). Besides, Frye reasoned, the money was all there on the silver screen.
“I think that deep-water tank was worth it,” Frye told journalist Dick Kleiner in the summer of 1980. “That sequence where the Titanic is raised is so exciting that, in our sneak previews, the audience actually cheered.”
While Frye was chipper, Kleiner sounded a note of caution in that August article. The public’s appetite for expensive disaster-adventure movies was already on the wane, as expensive flops The Swarm (1978), Meteor (1979) and the soggy sequel Beyond The Poseidon Adventure (1979) had proved. The advent of Star Wars had ushered in a new kind of effects blockbuster, with The Empire Strikes Back making millions in the first half of 1980. But if Frye had an inkling of how Raise The Titanic would be received, he didn’t show it in that interview, published just as his movie was released.
After all, he said, critics never liked these kinds of big, lavish movies.
“They [the critics] like to criticise pictures that cost a lot,” Frye said. “Just like people like to criticise women who wear expensive jewels and expensive clothes.”
The critics promptly did their worst.
“It’s a titanic dud,” one review read. “Raise The Titanic sinks into boredom,” tutted the NY Times’ Janet Maslin. And as for that multi-million-dollar scale Titanic, and those effects that made preview audiences cheer?
“The glistening, quivering air bubbles that burst out of the ship should be readily familiar to anyone who’s ever broken a thermometer,” Maslin continued. “They look just like globs of mercury, and there’s no mistaking the miniature Titanic for anything truly ship-sized. Nor will anyone imagine, in the process shots near the film’s ending, that a real, rusted ocean liner actually made its appearance in New York harbor.”
Ouch. The stinging reviews were matched by a dismal turn at the US box-office, where it made just $7 million – which didn’t even cover the cost of building the 55-foot replica Titanic and its accompanying water tank. As has been pointed out repeatedly since, the original Titanic cost $7.5 million to build in unadjusted dollars. Raise The Titanic’s revenues on its home release boosted the coffers, but not by much; as the film’s failure brought ITC Entertainment to the brink of ruin, Lord Grade famously joked that “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”
Clive Cussler was so stung by Raise The Titanic‘s failure – and the liberties its writers took with his book – that he refused to allow Hollywood to adapt any more of his work. That is, until the 21st century’s Sahara, which is a whole labyrinthine story by itself.
But while critics poured scorn on Raise The Titanic‘s effects, these were, at least to modern eyes, the least of the movie’s problems. Cut to the strains of John Barry’s lush score, the raising of the titanic is still an effective moment, and that replica Titanic is superbly detailed – even if a few poorly-chosen camera angles really give away its true scale. (On a semi-related note, it’s worth pointing out that Christopher Nolan’s superb use of large models in Interstellar is an example of how effective practical effects can still be when they’re shot correctly.)
In many ways, the removal of the source novel’s melodramatic exclamation mark hints at what really hampered this $40 million confection: it’s all so slow and deathly serious. The book’s pulpy tall tale is flattened out in the film as a terse Cold War thriller. The supporting cast, which includes Sir Alec Guinness, Jason Robards and M Emmet Walsh, all talk with furrowed brows and aching sincerity – even when saying things like, “We’re on a ship that never learned to do anything but sink, that’s distress!”
At one point, Dirk Pitt yells at a graphic of the Titanic on a computer screen, “It’s just sitting there. Move, you bastard, move!”
By the 100 minute mark, you’d be forgiven for shouting the same thing.
The spectre of Raise The Titanic‘s failure hung over Hollywood, yet our collective interest in White Star Line’s “unsinkable” ship never quite went away. This might explain why, despite persistent suggestions that it would a disaster of similarly epic proportions, James Cameron’s 1997 film became a $2 billion phenomenon. Indeed, Cameron may have been subconsciously influenced by Raise The Titanic when he made one of his earlier films; The Abyss is a sci-fi thriller set against the backdrop of the Cold War. It has submersibles scurrying about at the bottom of the sea, a dramatic storm, and, in scenes curiously reminiscent of Raise The Titanic, a third-act scene where a vessel is triumphantly raised to the ocean surface as extras wave and cheer…
Raise The Titanic was far from the summer extravaganza that was expected of it, and it’s fair to say that its ponderous thriller plot and macho posturing all look comical to modern eyes. But while the film lingers as a footnote in history, there’s a more tragic victim of its initial failure: that 10-tonne scale model, which probably belonged in a museum somewhere, was instead left on the grounds of Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta. The replica ship was severely damaged by a storm in 2003, and has now rusted beyond repair.
Just like the real Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, this relic from a bygone film languishes in isolation, its hull slowly succumbing to the elements.
The website RaiseTheTitanic was an invaluable source of information for this article, and well worth a visit.