'Titanic' director James Cameron puts decades-old debate to rest: Would Jack have survived if he stayed on the raft?

Actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in director James Cameron's 1997 film ‘Titanic’. Picture: Reuters

Actors Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in director James Cameron's 1997 film ‘Titanic’. Picture: Reuters

Published Dec 22, 2022


By Praveena Somasundaram

The question has plagued James Cameron for a quarter of a century.

In the years since the director’s 1997 film “Titanic” captured hearts around the world with the fictional story of two lovers aboard the infamous steamship, fans have wondered: Could Jack and Rose have survived together if they’d both squeezed atop the makeshift raft in the freezing cold waters?

Cameron had a decisive answer to the question back in 2017.

“Look, it’s very, very simple: you read page 147 of the script and it says, ‘Jack gets off the board and gives his place to her so that she can survive’,” he said in an interview with the “Daily Beast”.

But now, Cameron is ready to close the door on the debate.

The director recently revealed that he has commissioned a study that shows only one of the darling duo in “Titanic” could have survived, he said in an interview with the “Toronto Sun”.

The study, which used stunt people and hypothermia experts to re-create the film’s tragic, often-challenged scene, will be unveiled in a February 2023 National Geographic special around the time a remastered version of the blockbuster movie is scheduled to release.

“We actually did a scientific study to put this whole thing to rest and drive a stake through its heart once and for all,” Cameron said in the interview during promotion for his new film, “Avatar: The Way of Water”.

After the ship sank in “Titanic”, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets Rose (Kate Winslet) to safety by leading her to a door he finds floating in the frigid ocean water.

They both try to climb atop the door but then fall back into the water before Rose gets on it alone, and Jack makes her promise she’ll survive. He is still hanging on to the makeshift raft, his body submerged, when a rescue boat arrives. But as Rose, lying atop the door and wearing a life jacket, tries to wake him, she realises he’s dead.

And ever since Jack disappeared into the dark waters, fans have argued that he could’ve survived if he’d got on the door beside Rose.

Over the past 25 years, many have weighed in on Jack’s death, including the “MythBusters” television show, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Winslet and DiCaprio.

In 2012, Cameron himself made an appearance on “MythBusters when the show's hosts, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, told him the couple would have survived had Jack gotten on the door. The hosts did an experiment showing that if one of the characters had tied Rose's life jacket underneath the door to make it more buoyant and then propped their bodies more upright on the board, they would’ve lived.

“The script says Jack dies. He has to die,” Cameron responds in the episode. “So maybe we screwed up, and the board should’ve been a little tiny bit smaller, but the dude’s going down.”

So, with the new study, how might Cameron prove – beyond citing the “Titanic” script – that Jack could not have survived?

Sarah Purkey, a professor of oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, said it’s a problem of buoyancy versus gravity.

Picture: Reuters

For both Jack and Rose to have survived, she said, the buoyancy of the wood would have to be equal to or greater than the force of gravity from the weight of the characters.

“That's how boats float, and that's how a piece of driftwood floats,” Purkey said. “And it’s going to sink if gravity is more than its buoyancy.”

Doing those calculations comes down to how much the characters weighed and the size and material of the wood. But it brings up a question raised in the “MythBusters” episode – could Rose’s life jacket have been used to save Jack while they were under duress in the ice-cold ocean?

The stress of that situation makes it “absolutely realistic” that Jack and Rose would not have made all the right decisions, said Gordon Giesbrecht, a professor specialising in cold stress physiology at the University of Manitoba in Canada.

“That’s just basic panic-type stuff, panic or just not thinking straight in a stressful situation,” said Giesbrecht, who has studied human responses in extreme environments. “I mean, why can’t you read a question right when you’re writing an exam? Because you’re under stress.”

While the scene is hotly debated, Giesbrecht added that fans’ complaints to Cameron are frivolous, considering they are about a fictional cinema couple.

“It's just all so silly,” he said. “I can’t believe he’s been getting grief for 25 years about it.”

Though there are many known theories about the scene, it’s unclear what the study attempting to disprove them will look like.

All Cameron has revealed for now is that it used body doubles for Winslet and DiCaprio, fitted them with sensors and tested their survival “through a variety of methods".

And the answer was definitive every time – only one of them could make it out alive, according to Cameron.

“He's the one that got to pick the props and tell the story,” said Purkey, the University of California professor. “So in my mind, he gets to make that door any size and any density that he wants, and that’s what makes the movie.”

She added that if the study gets people thinking about the physics of the ocean, “then it’s great”.

And scientifically sound or not, the ship has sailed on a happy ending for Jack and Rose. After all, as Cameron has said time and time again, the couple’s devastating fate was sealed years ago on page 147 of the “Titanic” script.