A Disturbing Portrayal
When I read the original script I was amazed by the film’s portrayal of William Murdoch, long regarded as one of the heroes of the night and one of the finest and most respected officers of the White Star Line. On the basis of dubious evidence he’s seen shooting two of the passengers before turning the gun on himself. And, unbelievably, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever and running counter to everything we know about the man, James Cameron’s screenplay portrayed him as taking a bribe to let Billy Zane on a lifeboat. The script had Murdoch’s body hitting the sea and the money floating out from his coat pocket.
The charge seemed ludicrous and insulting to the memory of a brave officer who was last seen by fellow officers struggling and succumbing in the freezing sea after doing all in his power to save as many passengers as possible.
It didn’t take a genius to see how this would be received back in his native Scotland, especially in his hometown of Dalbeattie, proud of its famous son. I printed out information about Murdoch from the Internet and email correspondence I had with Susanne Störmer, a biographer of Murdoch, which echoed my indignation and the absurdity of the bribery charge.
When I got a chance, I gave the information to actor Ewan Stewart who was playing Murdoch. And a few days later when we were shooting the scene I was relieved that the screenplay had been changed to at least suggest some ambiguity in the bribery account. No longer did the money float out from his body, rather he threw it back in the face of Billy Zane just before supposedly committing suicide. But the money was in Murdoch's pocket long enough to leave the impression that he was willing to take it.
To placate the outrage in Scotland, after the release of Titanic, Twentieth-Century Fox sent a representative to Murdoch’s hometown to apologize for the portrayal and make a £5000 donation to the Murdoch prize for which local children had been competing for the best part of a century.
Small compensation perhaps for assaulting the character and reputation of a true hero who gave his life to save about 75% of those who made it off Titanic alive.