When Titanic sailed into theaters 20 years ago, director James Cameron was lauded for his commitment to historical accuracy. The grand staircase was re-created from the actual doomed ship's plans. Costume teams spent more than a year tracking down vintage pieces. The sinking scenes referenced real passengers' reported final moments.
Cameron's commitment to physical accuracy, on the other hand, has landed the filmmaker in hot water — or, in this case, very, very cold water — in the decades since his blockbuster debuted. Namely, it's been the question of whether Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack could have fit on the infamous floating door with Rose (Kate Winslet) instead of freezing to death in the icy waters of the Atlantic that's been Cameron's own personal iceberg. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, including Mythbusters' determination that there was plenty of room for two, Cameron's stuck with his story that Jack was out of luck. "It's called art; things happen for artistic reasons, not for physics reasons," the director told Vanity Fair earlier this year. If we are talking physics reasons, though, it seems the rest of the world is in agreement about that whole door thing.
But are we all in agreement about the viability of everything else that unfolds in the movie's three-plus hours? Are there other debates Titanic superfans should have been having on online message boards all this time? After Cameron worked with scientists and historians to examine what details his work might have missed in last month's National Geographic documentary special Titanic: 20 Years Later, we were inspired to do a deep dive of our own into three other questionable moments.
1. Jack Keeps Rose From Falling Off the Ship
Jack and Rose first officially meet when Jack comes across a distraught Rose contemplating leaping to her death from the Titanic's bow. The charming artist is able to talk the trapped blueblood out of it, but the two find themselves in a harrowing situation when Rose and her fancy satin heels slip on her dress, leaving her dangling over the railing with only Jack keeping her from plummeting.
Would Jack's grip alone have been enough to save Rose in real life? Colorado-based rock-climbing coach Justen Sjong said maybe.
There are plenty of factors working against the soon-to-be-lovers in this scene. Holding up a person — for a full 37 seconds; we timed it — is a lot harder than holding a static object like a barbell because a person moves and their weight is uneven, Sjong said. In Rose's case, the heavy beading on her dress probably isn't helping, and neither is the fact that as a high-society, turn-of-the-20th-century woman, she likely wasn't doing a lot of grueling labor with her hands that would bolster her grip strength.
Then again, Sjong pointed out, maybe Rose was a pianist or did some other form of upper-class-approved handiwork. We know from her ballet pose mic drop in the below-deck dance party scene later in the movie that she's got at least one secret talent up her delicately embellished sleeve. Finger strength is key in a hold like this, and Rose actually might have had it.
Sjong also said that because Jack and Rose were already holding hands when Rose slips, chances are he'd be able to hold on better than if she had fallen and he had grabbed for her. Factor in the cold weather, that their grip is with each of their dominant hands, the added support of the guard rail Rose is eventually able to latch onto with her other hand, and, most importantly, Rose's overall determination, and the probability that this interaction could have actually gone down as it was shown on screen goes up even further.
"The way [Rose] is portrayed," Sjong said, "it seems like she would be courageous, and she would be able to tap into that strength, and the likelihood that she would be able to hang onto that bar is pretty high."
2. Rose Chops Off Jack's Handcuffs With an Ax
What struck ax-throwing expert Lily Cope of Philadelphia's Urban Axes most upon rewatching the Titanic scene where Rose comes to a handcuffed Jack's rescue with a fireman's ax was Jack's guidance.
"The fact that he tells her to move her hand up — basically she's getting better weight distribution on the ax — is very good advice," Cope said. "I would say Jack probably knows a thing or two about ax-wielding."
That's likely a good bet considering Jack's outdoorsy Chippewa Falls, WI, upbringing and penchant for things like ice fishing, not to mention his general street-smart vibe. Jack telling Rose to bring down the ax "really hard and really fast" might be ill-advised in most ax-swinging situations, Cope said, as accuracy is more important than speed or power, but as we're talking about what Cope estimated to be about a six- or seven-pound ax (that's heavy, ax-velocity-wise), the additional effort could be necessary. Rose could also just be one of those people who shines under pressure, as the rest of the movie would suggest.
That all being said, Cope still isn't buying it. In her experience, it would take someone at least a year or more to be good enough to hit so specific a mark (and she still wouldn't want any of her fellow ax pros trying to chop her out of a similar situation).
"Maybe Rose had a secret ax-throwing life we don't know about, and that's why she was so good, and she just didn't want to let on to anyone that she wasn't such a prim and proper lady, but it would be incredibly lucky for her to hit that the way she did," Cope said. "If this were real, [Jack] would have no fingers or hands."
Verdict: Not Feasible
3. Jack Unlocks a Gate Underwater
Though Houdini and others have successfully unlocked themselves underwater, those feats didn't seem quite comparable with Jack and Rose's experience later in the movie when they have to unlock a metal gate to escape the ship's depths as the freezing ocean water is rushing in around them (the former, after all, were professional escape artists).
So I conducted this particular experiment myself, or at least a version of it, to see how likely it was that Jack was able to free himself and his love from yet another precarious situation. I'll grant that my bathroom approximation wasn't a direct parallel, but I did fill my sink with water, ice, and a healthy pour of salt. I then dropped in a full keychain (the one Jack and Rose are working with has four or five keys on it) and a lock. No, I didn't try this in a life-threatening tank of rising water, but I did blindfold myself to at least have some degree of disorientation, and I did time it.
In the movie, from the time the frazzled White Star Line employee drops his keychain on the other side of the gate and the time Jack is able to pull the unlocked gate open, 59 seconds pass. On my first attempt at re-creating the moment, I was able to fumble with the keys for a solid 43 seconds before my hands were too numb to keep going. Try number two took me only about 20 seconds, but I'd had the practice of round one to rely on, and I'd given myself a break to warm my freezing hands, which pretty much defeats the purpose.
Jack and Rose had been fully submerged in icy brine for well over an hour at this point in the movie, so their being able to do this so quickly is far more impressive. My methods were admittedly not scientifically significant, but I was able to get the lock open as Jack was, so I'll say this one is doable.
Jack and Rose's survival strategies in the final scenes of the ship sinking also seem to check out. After Rose gives up her original lifeboat spot, the two's decision to keep moving up the deck is probably a good one, as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has said staying on the boat for as long as possible is best during a shipwreck. In fact, one 17-year-old Titanic survivor said he'd been able to make it by waiting until the ship was almost entirely underwater before jumping from a railing into the ocean, too.
Which brings us, again, to that door. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson's biggest complaint with the scene wasn't the size of the debris — it was that, with life on the line, they should have at least tried to get Jack on there more than once. Yes, they were exhausted. Yes, they were freezing. But considering how masterfully the two were able to overcome these other dire moments against the physical odds (and the real-life team we know Kate and Leo to be), we'd have to agree.