In "Titanic" (1953), Clifton Webb Discovers the Greatest Love of All

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"Titanic" (1953) and Absolute Love

The film "Titanic" (20th Century Fox, 1953) portrays a number of characters in crisis, which is natural considering the dire situation they face. But don't let all the chaos and pathos distract you from the deeply moving journey of one particular character, who discovers the greatest love of all.

Clifton Webb plays Richard Sturges, whose marriage is in crisis and is informed by his wife that their son Norman is not his biological child. Norman, just 13 or so, is unaware of his illegitimacy, and idolizes the man he has always known as his father. But Richard coldly decides to turn away from the boy forever, and leaves the family to wander the decks of the ship.

In this scene, Richard suddenly discovers not only that the ship is going to sink, but that there are not enough lifeboats for the men:

The change in Richard's attitude - toward his family in general, and his son in particular - is instantaneous. Without hesitation, he returns to his wife and children to calmly escort them into their life jackets and onto a lifeboat, telling them that it is all just a safety precaution. In watching this scene, I can't help but imagine the wrenching terror Richard is having to suppress in order to help his family. When the son points out that Richard has neglected to put on a life jacket, it is clear that Richard's concern for his own life has completely vanished. In realizing this selfless love, he has happened upon a state of grace.

Richard gets his family onto a lifeboat, and says goodbye, lying to them that there is another boat for him on the other side of the ship. But as the boat is lowered into the waters, the son impetuously swaps his place with someone else, and goes to join his father. Richard is shocked to find Norman still aboard, and stunned when he discovers that all the lifeboats are gone, and the boy's life cannot be saved. Notice how Richard instinctively wraps an arm around his son, and never breaks their physical connection for the rest of the scene, as if the two of them have become one in his mind.

"Well Norman," Richard tells his son, "I didn't count on this." This line is doubly poignant, not only conveying Richard's sadness over their imminent deaths, but also his surprise to discover how much he loves Norman, despite having no biological relationship. Imagine the gratitude Richard must have felt for this boy, and the comfort he derived at the moment of his death, in the realization that he had truly loved and been loved by another human being. What an accomplishment, in life's 11th hour.

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