Since the RMS Titanic’s famous sinking on April 15, 1912, its story has captivated historians and laypersons alike. Entire archives of ship logs, structural blueprints, and witness testimonials have been scrutinized in attempt to answer a key question: how could the Titanic, symbol of the genius of a generation, have fallen victim to an iceberg on its maiden voyage? Titanic’s Final Mystery, a 2012 Smithsonian Channel documentary, presents amateur historian Tim Maltin’s theory that refractive mirages, not undue human error, were directly responsible for the disaster.
For all the boldness of its claim, the documentary begins in a fairly standard fashion. The first half of the film is dedicated to a rehash of the voyage with special focus on the events around the sinking itself. To its merit, the visuals are terrific, with CGI ship models and re-enacted survivor testimonials rendered in gorgeous 1080p. In fact, the narrative can be so enthralling that, at times, the viewer loses sight of the controversial thesis that Maltin is proposing.
His theory is as follows: at the site of its sinking, the Titanic was sailing across a boundary between the cold Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream, where contrasting warm and cold air masses typically form layers. Light passing through air of different densities at this boundary refracts, altering the apparent height of objects near the horizon. Maltin argues that this refraction a) obscured the iceberg’s image, such that lookouts could only spot it thirty seconds prior to impact, and b) altered the Titanic’s appearance to the nearby Carpathia, which consequently could not recognize the massive steam liner nor the numerous distress signals calling for aid. In particular, Maltin takes aim at the conventional notion that various human errors were the primary fault behind the sinking.
While it is difficult to evaluate the entirety of Maltin’s theory, his claims are dubiously backed by handpicked survivor testimonials, which are known to be notoriously unreliable. As a whole, the argumentative side of the documentary falls short of its lofty ambitions, and may actually detract from the compelling presentation. Better first choice viewings for Titanic newbies include A Night to Remember, or the History Channel’s Titanic: The Complete Story as an authoritative documentary.
Cover Image: The documentary’s depiction of the Titanic’s final moments before disappearing under the waves. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Channel.