Raise The Titanic (1980)

Country: United Kingdom / United States
Director: Jerry Jameson
Starring: Richard Jordan, Alec Guiness, Jason Robards, David Selby, Anne Archer, M. Emmet Walsh, J.D. Cannon, Bo Brundin, Norman Bartold, Elya Baskin, Dirk Blocker
Music: John Barry
Based on the book by Clive Cussler

Ahhhhhhh! I never though I’d start a film review with a scream. But Raise The Titanic has to be one of the worst film adaptations of a novel of all time. Not that Clive Cussler’s book was one of the better entries in the Dirk Pitt series, but at least, as far fetched as it was, it had a logical progression from one plot point to another. The film throws that all out the window, and all we are left with are three distinct parts. A bewildering beginning. Raising the Titanic. And a drawn out ending. All played out with a miscast collection of character actors – fans of the book series will know what I mean. Jordan is NOT Dirk Pitt. Robards is NOT Admiral Sandecker.

The first thing you should know is that Clive Cussler’s book was written in 1976 (but set in 1987), and this film was released in 1980. Despite many expeditions, the actual wreck of the Titanic was not discovered until 1985, when Dr, Robert Ballard and scientists from the Woods Hole Deep Submergence Lab located the wreck 13.5 miles away from where she was believed to have sunk. These days we know that the Titanic broke up as she sank and now lay on the ocean floor in numerous pieces. But this film makes the supposition that the Titanic lay on the ocean floor in one piece, with just a large gash down the side. This film is a fanciful ‘what if’ story. It is best that you ignore what is now known to be fact.

The film opens with archive photos of the Titanic – from her construction in the shipyards to her launch. This is accompanied by a sweeping (and stirring) orchestration by John Barry. Then we cut to present day. An American agent is on the Soviet controlled island of Svardloff in the Arctic Circle. With a small shovel he is digging a hole in the snow. At the same time he keeps a Geiger-counter beside him and continually checks the radiation readings. Eventually he digs himself into an old abandoned mine. He follows the mining car tracks back to the living quarters, where in one of the bunks, he finds a body, frozen stiff. An inscription, burnt into the wood says:
Here lies Sgt. Jake Hobart
United States Army
Froze in a storm
February 10, 1912

The film then shifts location to Washington DC and we are introduced to James Sandecker (Jason Robards) and Dr. Seagram (David Selby). They have a small problem. Seagram is a scientist and he has been working on a project called The Sicilian Project, which is a laser controlled missile shield which will cover and protect the United States from nuclear attack. For this shield to work, each station in the surrounding chain needs a self contained power source.
This power source comes in the form of an extremely rare ore called Byzantium. The only mine where this ore can be found, happens to be on the island of Svardloff, and an agent – who also happens to be a mining engineer – has been sent off to investigate. But this agent is now four days overdue. If he is found or captured by the Russians, there will be an international ‘incident’.

When we next see the agent he is on the ice and running. He is being chased by a Russian soldier, who produces his rifle and fires. The American goes down. The Russian then sets his guard dog upon the fallen man. At that moment a shot rings out and the dog is killed. Another shot takes down the Russian soldier. It’s Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan) to the rescue. He carries the agent to safety – first a boat, and then a plane back to the United States.

Back in the US, Pitt relays what the agent had told him to Sanddecker and Seagram. It appears that Byzantium was on Svardloff, but they are sixty plus years too late. The ore had already been mined – not by the Russians – by the Americans. The ore was then shipped to Scotland and then across land taken to Southhampton where it was put aboard a steamer heading for New York. The ship happened to be the Titanic. Put simply, the only place on earth where there is any Byzantium is in the hold of the Titanic, which is lying unfound on the seafloor of the Atlantic ocean.

For The Sicilian Project to go ahead, they need Byzantium, and the President of the United States gives the go ahead to a project to find and raise the Titanic. Heading the project is Dirk Pitt. Naturally, the Russians find out about the Americans plan and a limp cold war story plays out in the background.

Despite my hostility towards this film, it does have one saving grace however, and that is the score by John Barry. It is one of Barry’s best sweeping scores. It’s not bombastic like a Bond movie score. This is evocative and melancholy. If this movie effects you in any way, it is due to the music rather than anything that is happening on the screen.

Raise The Titanic is also has one other dubious distinction – it is amongst the biggest flops in British film history. With an alleged budget of around thirty million dollars – which was a staggering amount in the late ‘70’s / early ‘80s – it bombed at the box office. This is the film that nearly sunk Sir Lew Grade (the man behind all the classic ITC television series). Afterward, Grade famously said “Raise The Titanic! It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”
Raise The Titanic was such a turkey, and so disrespectful of its source material, that it is well documented that novelist Clive Cussler refused to sell the movie rights to any of his other novels for many years – that is until Sahara – and even that attracted its share of controversy (and law suits).

I know I may have appeared to kick this film while it’s down, and it may not be quite that bad, but I am a big fan of Clive Cussler’s novels – and although I realise books and films are two very different mediums and there must be alterations to the way the story is told and presented – this film is just disrespectful. What is the point of purchasing the rights to a best-selling novel (particularly if it features an on-going character like Dirk Pitt), if you’re going twist that character to the point where he unrecognisable!

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