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Raise the Titanic (1980)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Richard Jordan, Jason Robards, David Selby, Anne Archer, Alec Guinness, M. Emmet Walsh

Written By: Adam Kennedy, Eric Hughes (adaptation), Clive Cussler (novel)

Directed By: Jerry Jameson

The Short Version

A grand adventure novel gets adapted for the screen.

Good books don’t always make good movies; here’s a case in point.

What should be a fun adventure gets bogged down by nonsense and, well, surprisingly little adventure.

For moments at a time, though, something good shines through; possibly just enough.

Raise the Titanic is worth one look for enthusiasts of the world’s most famous shipwreck, but for others…

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


These should be awesome, but not so much.

Pairs Well With...


I’d love to offer you something less watered down, but…

You want to talk about distress?  We have Navy Weather forecasting a Force 12 storm, we have Russians looking down our throats, and we’re on a ship that never learned to do anything but sink!  That's distress.”

I’ve got a confession to make.  The first series of adventure novels that I ever got into weren’t by Ian Fleming, and they didn’t feature a British Intelligence Agent named James Bond.  Instead, they were written by a fellow named Clive Cussler, and they starred an oceanographer/wreck diver/adventurer who worked for a fictitious US government agency and who went by the swashbuckling name of Dirk Pitt.

In 1976, nine years before the real remains of the world’s most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic, were found by Robert Ballard and company, Cussler wrote a novel in which he imagined his own version of how the wreck might be discovered… and recovered.  That novel became Dirk Pitt’s third literary adventure, and the one with the most provocative title: “Raise the Titanic!”

It was, of course, a smash hit at the bookstore.  Is it any wonder that negotiations for movie rights weren’t far behind?

After giving the rights an initial pass, Lord Lew Grade reconsidered (something about visions of a new James Bond style franchise running through his head, ‘tis whispered), and in 1978, production of Raise the Titanic (now sans exclamation point) began.

Alas, shipwreck metaphors weren’t far behind.  Over the course of the next two years, the tales of mishaps, arguments, and cost overruns became the stuff of legends.  When all was said and done, the budget had ballooned to a whopping $36 million.  (That may sound like chump change for Hollywood today, but consider this: a little movie called The Empire Strikes Back came out the same year that Raise the Titanic did, and that little movie cost half the money to make.)  Grade would famously go on to lament that “it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”

And then, when Raise the Titanic premiered in 1980, it sank almost as fast as its namesake did sixty-eight years before.

Audiences hated it.  Critics hated it.  Clive Cussler hated it so much that he refused to sell movie rights to any more of his novels for the next twenty-five years.  Lew Grade quit the movie business.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it?

Let’s have a look.

One might imagine that raising the wreck of the Titanic (something which we now know to be impossible, of course, but back when the book was written and the movie made, no one knew that the ship had broken into pieces, so license is allowed) would be more than enough adventure in and of itself to make for a good story, but neither the novel nor the film agree – though perhaps, in hindsight, it should have been enough for Hollywood.  As it stands, the core story of the title that captures any potential audience’s imagination is but a means to an end, with the real plot being a race to find a rare radioactive mineral needed to either power a defense system or gain ultimate nuclear supremacy, depending upon whom one might choose to ask.  Either way, the only known supply of the stuff is supposed to be locked away in a vault aboard the Titanic, ergo… Raise the Titanic.  This convoluted red baiting Cold War stuff works well enough in the pages of a novel, but on the screen, it bogs things down, and in the hands of director Jerry Jameson, who has major problems here with both pacing and thrill generation, it turns into a dull, time-wasting albatross that takes away from the fun stuff everyone actually came to see.  Toss in a pointless, half-assed love triangle subplot just for giggles, and the end result is movie wherein it feels as though a minimum of half the runtime is a watch-consulting waste.

So far, so bad.

It doesn’t help that the plot of Raise the Titanic feels less like a natural progression of one event leading to another than it does a conveyor belt checklist wherein the next damn thing is always going to happen on time whether anything else has led to it or not.  (And wait… did Dirk Pitt just say they’d been at it for five weeks?  When did those weeks happen?)  For people who have read the book, the changes made for the film are irritating at best and infuriating at their worst.  (One missing name: Al Giordino.  Cussler fans will understand.)    For people experiencing Raise the Titanic as a film and nothing else, it can be very easy to feel ripped off by the time all is said and done, though exactly how I won’t say for the sake of spoilers.  Even some hasty post-release edits couldn’t make things better; indeed, they probably made them worse.  (If you weren’t there in 1980, you’ll never know; the cut footage has not been restored for video.)

So why, with all of this bad stuff working against it and even the author of the book upon which the movie is based denouncing it as refuse, would anyone want to bother watching Raise the Titanic?

People obsessed with the wreck of the real Titanic aside – their interest, at least for the space of one viewing, is taken as a given – there’s still a fair amount of decent material for general cinephiles to consider.

First off, there’s the matter of Dirk Pitt.  Though he doesn’t have nearly enough fun stuff to do in this flick, his is none the less perfectly cast in the person of Richard Jordan (The Hunt for Red October).  Jordan brings a true hero’s presence and gravitas to the role; a confidence and a sense of fun essential to making a centerpiece franchise character (which, had things gone differently, the filmed Pitt might have become).  He does this without sacrificing his character’s essential humanity; indeed, there are moments in this film wherein the single best word to describe what Jordan does is “beautiful.”  (The pennant raising scene, for example.) 

And speaking of thespian beauty and gravitas, the single scene cameo by Sir Alec Guinness (Star Wars) is incredibly moving, and, for those who truly appreciate wonderful performances, could be considered reason enough for enduring the entire rest of the picture.

Though the sense of adventure promised by the title of Raise the Titanic is missing, when characters are going about the actual business of researching and in fact raising the Titanic, there is a sense of wonder there, at least until the Russians come back to muck it all up.  For moments at a time, the possibilities are there, but… but…

Whether one has ever read any of Clive Cussler’s novels or not, it’s really easy to hate on Raise the Titanic, and I can totally understand why so many people from 1980 right on to the present day have done exactly that.  For my own part, I am extremely disappointed in it, but I can’t quite bring myself to dislike the thing, even as it encourages me to check my watch while it’s playing.  There’s something about the moments that do work that sticks and supersedes all of those things I know to be wrong with it.  Not enough for me to recommend it to others without reservation, of course, but enough that I myself am willing to revisit the wreck that is the movie about the wreck that was every few years or so.

Bottom line, if you count yourself as one of those people who is obsessed by the real life wreck of the Titanic, of course you’re going to want to see Raise the Titanic once no matter how good or bad it may be.  For the rest of the world, objectively speaking, it’s not a good movie, and yet…  Well, you’ve been warned, at the very least.

Iceberg, right ahead!

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, February, 2014

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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