The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch
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Film Data

Country: United States
Release date: 1 November 1997
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane

Plot: 84 years later, a 100-year-old woman named Rose DeWitt Bukater tells the story to her granddaughter Lizzy Calvert, Brock Lovett, Lewis Bodine, Bobby Buell and Anatoly Mikailavich on the Keldysh about her life set in April 10th 1912, on a ship called Titanic when young Rose boards the departing ship with the upper-class passengers and her mother, Ruth DeWitt Bukater, and her fiancé, Caledon Hockley. Meanwhile, a drifter and artist named Jack Dawson and his best friend Fabrizio De Rossi win third-class tickets to the ship in a game. And she explains the whole story from departure until the death of Titanic on its first and last voyage April 15th, 1912 at 2:20 in the morning.

Trivia: Only the starboard side of the exterior set was completed. In the scenes portraying the ship at the Southampton dock, all shots were reversed to give the appearance of the port side of the ship, as it was actually docked in 1912. This required the painstaking construction of reversed costumes and signage to complete the illusion, which was achieved by reversing the image in post-production.

James Cameron's Titanic and Murdoch

  • Ed Marsh’s behind-the-scenes look at the making of Cameron’s epic film in his book James Cameron's Titanic also contains a small segment on the filming of the suicide scene:

    “Much of the ship’s lore extends from the tearful good-byes witnessed on the boat deck and Cameron layered several historic moments into this portion of his tale. ‘Accuracy is a big challenge for us,’ says the director. ‘Wherever possible we want to tell our story within an absolutely rigorous, historically accurate framework, complimenting history rather than distorting it.’…

    “But for every story told, such as Molly Brown’s bravery, there are stories that have either passed into obscurity or were never brought to light in the first place. Many of these tales fall into a gray area bounded by fact on one side and varying combinations of information and conjecture on the other…

    “‘In some instances it is impossible to separate human emotion from the truth,’ explains Cameron, who chose to photograph one of the ship’s officers shooting himself shortly before the last lifeboat is launched. Despite considerable evidence (including an unpublished account from an officer and research by Historian Walter Lord for The Night Lives On), the details of the suicide remain unresolved. This is in part out of respect for the memory of a career seaman who stayed at his post and saved hundreds of lives. ‘I’m not sure you’d find that same sense of responsibility and total devotion to duty today,’ says the director ‘This guy had half of his lifeboats launched before his counterpart on the port side had even launched one. That says something about character and heroism” Cameron’s high opinion of the officer is echoed in a letter sent days after the sinking by a first-class passenger who claims to have witnessed his death: ‘The dear officer gave orders to row away from the sinking boat at least two hundred yards; he afterwards, poor dear brave fellow, shot himself. We saw the whole thing.’” (29.)

Don Lynch - Titanic Advisor

  • Don Lynch, author of Titanic –An Illustrated History was James Cameron’s historical advisor for the film. As such, he offered advice rather than demands and some small facets of the film are consequently not completely historically correct since such advice was sometimes overridden in favour of artistic licence. Regarding the suicide scene, the BBC’s Independent Teletext Borders service, March 23, 1998, wrote:“An advisor to the film Titanic has said he warned the director against inaccurately portraying the Scottish first officer as a cowardly murderer. Historian Don Lynch said the screen character of William Murdoch is not backed by any historical evidence.”

    According to George Behe, this statement is “untrue and does not accurately reflect Lynch’s thoughts on the matter.” He wrote the following:

    “The present author has long known that James Cameron based his Murdoch ‘shooting/suicide scene’ upon the eyewitness accounts of George Rheims and Eugene Daly plus the multitude of 1912 survivor accounts which allege that William Murdoch (by name) was the officer who took his own life during the sinking of the Titanic. The certain knowledge that Don Lynch was also familiar with these accounts caused the present author to wonder why (or if) Lynch would say anything remotely similar to what the BBC quoted him as saying. It seemed logical to ask Lynch for his personal opinion of Cameron’s film portrayal of Murdoch, and Lynch was kind enough to reply to this query.

    “Question: Did you ever ‘warn’ James Cameron that his film portrayal of William Murdoch’s suicide ‘is not backed by any historical evidence?’ “Lynch: If you want to do so in your posting, you can say, truthfully, that I have continually defended Jim’s right to put that scene in the movie since there is not proof that the suicide didn’t happen, despite my feelings that it didn't.” (11.)

Titanic (1997)
Ewan Stewart

Ewan Stewart as Murdoch

As the second highest grossing and most expensive film of all time, James Cameron’s Oscar award winning epic film has become a legend in itself. As the screenplay writer, editor, producer and director, James Cameron’s objective was to achieve the most accurate rendition of Titanic than had ever been done before. His efforts at accuracy required diving down to the real wreck to get actual footage, an almost full-scale set of Titanic that was gradually sunk and extensive computer-generated special effects. But did he, in the light of evidence considered, give an accurate portrayal of Murdoch?

Titanic’s officers, from left: Sixth Officer Moody (Edward Fletcher),
Second Officer Lightoller (Jonny Philips), First Officer Murdoch (Ewan Stewart),
Captain Smith (Bernard Hill), Chief Officer Wilde (Mark Lindsay Chapman)
and Fifth Officer Lowe (Ioan Gruffudd)

Actor Ewan Stewart.

For the first time since A Night to Remember (to which Cameron admittedly pays homage) the First Officer was played by an actor with at least certain aesthetic accuracy, Ewan Stewart fitting the general look and age of the real Murdoch. And, the first time ever on film, the role of the First Officer was not a minor one. He appears in several important scenes, beginning with a dramatic day shot of Titanic sailing through Atlantic waters. On the starboard wing, Captain Smith (played by Bernard Hill) turns to Murdoch and says: “Take her to sea Mister Murdoch. Let’s stretch her legs” at which the First Officer walks into the bridge and moves the engine telegraph lever to “All Ahead Full”. After a montage of images showing the ship building in speed, Murdoch is seen from an aerial shot stepping out of the bridge and walking up to the Captain. This is in fact a computer generated Murdoch! In close-up, he then reports back to Smith with good news: “Twenty-one knots, sir!”

Above, left to right: Computer generated image of First Officer Murdoch walking
up to Captain Smith on the starboard wing bridge; view of the bow;
“Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch. Let’s stretch her legs.”

Iceberg Collision

Murdoch relieves Lightoller at 10pm;
looking out from the starboard wing bridge

The iceberg collision scene is certainly one of the most exciting seen on film so far. Murdoch is first shown taking over from Lightoller at 10pm. He is wearing a thick overcoat -indicating the drop in temperature- and positioned on the starboard wing. As he walks out onto the wing he asks Lightoller: “Did you ever find those binoculars for the lookouts?” to which Lightoller replies: “I haven’t seen them since Southampton.”

On the forward well deck below Murdoch spots Jack and Rose kissing; turning away, he smiles warmly to himself.

At the time of the sighting of the iceberg, Murdoch appears momentarily distracted, possibly looking at some light on the horizon, with his back towards the bow (he has turned his back after seeing fictional characters Jack and Rose kissing on the forward well deck below, a sight which causes him to smile warmly to himself!). On hearing the lookout bell ring four times, he swings round to see the iceberg appear through the haze. The rest of the action and dialogue was taken from relevant inquiry transcripts, adhering word-for-word, although showing little extra elements such as Murdoch, in his hurry to enter the bridge and throw the ship full astern, knocking a cup of tea out of the hands of Sixth Officer Moody. Unlike other films, Murdoch’s reactions are shown as not merely one of ordering commands, but he is seen rushing frantically around the bridge, shouting instructions and vigorously switching the engine room telegraph to “Stop” and then “Full Speed Astern.”

James Cameron directing Ewan
Stewart on the starboard wing
bridge, explaining the First
Officer’s reaction to the iceberg.
Lower picture shows Cameron
staring down the iceberg, like
Murdoch does in the final cut.

Murdoch then rushes back to the starboard wing and calls out to Moody: “Is it hard over?” Moody replying that it is. The First Officer’s frustration at the slow rate of turn is seen as he verbally wills (under his breath) the ship to turn. In the screenplay Cameron writes: “MURDOCH’S jaw clenches as the bow turns with agonizing slowness. He holds his breath as the horrible physics play out.” (James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.84 (22.) ). As the collision occurs, Murdoch glances down at his gloved hand on the starboard wing’s wooden rail, to see it vibrate as the iceberg scraps past the hull. He then shouts “Hard-a-port!” and taking another horrified look as the massive iceberg passes, rushes back into the wheelhouse and pushes the alarm bell and watertight door lever almost simultaneously (as Richard Edkins suggests probably would have happened (1.)).

Once the collision is all over, Murdoch is in a state of shock, his face whitened and glistening with sweat. The screenplay describes the scene:

“CLOSE ON MURDOCH. The alarm bells still clatter mindlessly, seeming to reflect his inner state. He is in shock, unable to get a grip on what just happened. He just ran the biggest ship in history into an iceberg on its maiden voyage.” (James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.86 (22.) )


The ensuing conversation with Smith is again word-for-word from Quartermaster Hichen’s evidence, Murdoch following the Captain out onto the wing bridge where they look astern for the iceberg. The Captain then orders Murdoch: “Find the Carpenter and get him to sound the ship.” (For the full pictorial for the collision sequence, please click on COLLISION SEQUENCE on the right).

Starboard Evacuation

“Two thousand two hundred souls aboard, sir”;

Later, Murdoch is in the chartroom when Thomas Andrews relays the shocking news to Captain Smith that the ship will indeed sink. The Captain turns to the First Officer and asks: “And how many aboard, Mr. Murdoch?” Murdoch, still displaying signs of shock, replies: “Two thousand two hundred souls aboard, sir.” This piece of dialogue was probably attributed to Murdoch to confirm his sense of unavoidable responsibility for what has happened. Correct to history, Murdoch is seen loading and lowering the first lifeboat to be launched, No.7. Since it is true that many of the crew were unfamiliar with the equipment, Cameron shows one end of the boat suddenly dipping down too fast and Murdoch corrects them, shouting orders, “hold the left side!… lower away together!”

“Any more women and children?”;
lowering first lifeboat No.7

However, it is Murdoch’s next appearance that is the beginning of much controversy. It involves fictional character Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) supposedly bribing Murdoch to gain a place in one of his lifeboats. Loosely based on the fact that Murdoch did allow more men into boats on his side than Lightoller (some estimate “100 of 131 surviving male passengers entered a starboard lifeboat” –refer to “Starboard Evacuation” and Men on the Starboard Side), Cameron takes this a little further with Cal and his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner) conspiring to escape. Lovejoy says to Cal: “There are still some boats down the front. Stay with this one… Murdoch. He seems quite…practical” as Murdoch is seen in the background trying to keep the crowd at bay as lifeboat No.15 is lowered, shouting “Stand back!” (James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.118). The so-called bribery scene in the screenplay is as follows:

Cal sees Murdoch turn from the davits of boat 15 and starts walking toward the bow. He catches up and falls in beside him.

CAL: Mr. Murdoch, I’m a businessman, as you know, and I have a business proposition for you…

Water pours like a spillway over the forward railing on B-deck. CAMERA SWEEPS UP past A-deck to the Boat Deck where Murdoch and his team are loading collapsible C at the forward-most davits…

The crowd here is sparse, with most people still aft. Cal slips his hand out of the pocket of his overcoat and into the waist pocket of Murdoch’s greatcoat, leaving the stacks of bills there.

CAL: So we have an understanding then?

Murdoch notices that Ismay has slipped into
the lifeboat, and reluctantly lets him go.

Although in the screenplay Murdoch was to have replied “As you’ve said” this reply was eliminated from the film and as staged Murdoch makes no reply, gives Cal a look bordering on disdain and then moves off. Cameron explains that he did not want Murdoch accepting Cal’s bribe outright: “It’s ambiguous territory. I wanted to imply that he was too preoccupied with other matters to deal with it at that moment.” (James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.119 (22.))

With the loading of collapsible C almost complete, Murdoch then calls out “Women and children? Anymore women and children? (Glancing at Cal) Anyone else then?” However, Cal, having been informed that Rose is on the port side, decides against his better judgment and walks away. Ismay, standing by, looks around, and then takes his chance and steps into the boat. Murdoch turns around to see the President of the White Star Line now seated in the collapsible and with a tone of almost disappointment says: “Take them down.” Thus, Cameron makes a connection between Cal’s attempted bribery and Ismay’s escape, showing that Murdoch allowed men into boats based on whether there is room left, not just on financial gain.

Caledon Hockley: “I have a business proposition for you...”
Murdoch throws his money back in his face saying:
“Your money can’t save you any more than it can save me.”

The fact that in the film First Officer Murdoch is not shown accepting the bribe is emphasised in the scene that has caused the most controversy: Scene 221, the suicide. Although not in the screenplay, Murdoch -upon Cal stepping up to him and saying “We had a deal, damn you”- responds by flinging the bribe money in Cal’s face and saying bitterly: “Your money can’t save you any more than it can save me.”

Consequently, it is incorrect to allege that Cameron’s film has Murdoch outrightly accepting a bribe. Yes, Murdoch’s acceptance was in the original script, but it was changed for a more reasonable portrayal in which the First Officer is far too busy, frustrated or confused to handle the matter instantly, later throwing the money back in the face of the briber. The question remains: Did bribery ever take place? At present there is no evidence to suggest that it did (except for rumours regarding the Duff Gordons in No.1 who may have ‘paid’ their lifeboat crew). Of course, that is not to say nothing of the sort occurred. Indeed, the ship had many wealthy and influential men and women accustomed to employing their money to get their way, with “tips” a common practice in most European countries and the United States. It is possibly a fine line between a “tip” and a “bribe” in such circumstances. And if such a business arrangement was ever made, it would no doubt have been done discretely, with little evidence as a consequence.

Scene 221: The Suicide

Murdoch firing his revolver into the crowds
stampeding the collapsible.

Cameron places the suicide scene as Murdoch tries to get collapsible A ready for launch. Oars are first placed against the side of the officer’s quarters and the lifeboat slides down, the wooden oars snapping, the boat finally sitting upright on the deck. Murdoch jumps down from the roof and then looks down the stairwell to the deck below to see water rushing up. He realises there is little time and begins shouting: “Get these davits straightened up and the falls hooked up!”

As the crowds see that this is one of the last boats, panic ensues and Murdoch is forced to bring out his Webley revolver. The script describes it in this way:

“Murdoch, at collapsible A, is no longer in control. The crowd is threatening to rush the boat. They push and they jostle, yelling and shouting at the officers. The pressure from behind pushes them forward, and one guy falls off the edge of the deck into the water less than ten feet below.” (Titanic, James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.128 (22.))

A rare photograph of a rehearsal for the suicide scene.

An Irishman by the name of Tommy shouts: “Give us a chance to live, you limey bastards!” at which Murdoch levels his gun at the crowd. “I’ll shoot any man who tries to get past me!” he shouts. “Get back!” At this point Cal steps up to him and says: “We had a deal, damn you.” In response, as already related, Murdoch flings the money back into Cal’s face, saying bitterly, “Your money can’t save you any more than it can save me.” He shoves Cal back into the crowd.

Murdoch salutes the crowds
before taking his own life.

All of a sudden a man is pushed forward and, instinctively, Murdoch fires his gun in defence. Tommy the Irishman is also knocked forward and Murdoch shoots him down. Suddenly realising what he has done, Murdoch turns a shade of pale. Looking down to see blood flowing down the tilt of the deck, then to the seaman preparing the falls and then to the passengers, he is overwhelmed by what he has just done.

“Murdoch turns to his men and salutes smartly. Then he puts the pistol to his temple and… BLAM! He drops like a puppet with the strings cut and topples over the edge of the boat deck into the water only a few feet away.” (Titanic, James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.128 (22.))

As depicted in the film, Chief Officer Wilde (Mark Lindsay Chapman) calls out “No, Will!” on seeing Murdoch with a gun to his head only moments before the gun is fired. From that point on Wilde is depicted as trying to launch collapsible A. Murdoch is last shown landing in the water face down.

Extra Graham Mackintosh who gave Ewan Stewart
information from Susanne Störmer's Murdoch biography.

According to Graham Mackintosh, a red headed extra who appears in several scenes in the film (notably cheering on an Irishman arm-wrestling a Swede and a drunk who falls down and is then handed another glass of beer during the steerage party) he considered the Murdoch bribery and suicide "a disturbing portrayal". In his website he mentions the fact that he was there when the bribery and suicide scenes were shot and gave actor Ewan Stewart information from Susanne Störmer's Murdoch biography:

"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...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...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."(Graham Mackintosh Baja Books...Exploring the Spirit of Baja California website)

A photograph of actor Ewan Stewart by extra Graham
Mackintosh, possibly while filming the suicide scene.
(Click image to enlarge)

In analysis, it is clear that Cameron intended to underscore the despair Murdoch felt at his unavoidable situation. His actions on the bridge when an iceberg was spotted were instinctive; his actions on the boat deck were also. However, both ended in death, even though his objective was to save people. It was a natural reflex action, not premeditated murder. His objectives were admirable –he was not firing his gun out of personal protection or vengeance. It was to maintain order and control so that the last lifeboat could be safely launched. But it did not transpire as expected, the exact opposite occurring. Everything was going wrong. His line to Cal in which he says nothing can “save” him indicates that he was already at a dead end, up against a brick wall. James Cameron summarises this:

“I re-wrote the scene because I wanted to make it clearer that Murdoch saw his own situation as hopeless. He’s accepting full responsibility for the chaos around him. Murdoch was an honorable man who felt the burden of responsibility for the deaths which were to come.” (Titanic, James Cameron’s Illustrated Screenplay, p.127 (22.))


According to Cameron, then, his depiction of Murdoch is not of a man ‘gone bad,’ a ‘cowardly murderer,’ but of an “honorable man” who accepts full collective responsibility for the predicament they are in and for the death of 1500 that were shortly to occur. He is overwhelmed by feelings of desperation and makes the ultimate payment by sacrificing his own life. His intention was not to portray Murdoch as a ‘murderer’ as actor Paul Young suggests, but the very opposite (for more information on the suicide sequence, please refer to SUICIDE SEQUENCE on the right -click to enlarge, 'James Cameron’s Titanic and Murdoch' bx on the left and also 'Don Lynch Titanic Advisor' box on the left of this page).

In the “dream sequence” at the end of the film, the last two
characters Rose sees before ascending the grand staircase
to meet Jack are First Officer Murdoch (far left)
and Thomas Andrews.

Cameron’s high opinion of Murdoch is revealed when he says, “I’m not sure you’d find that same sense of responsibility and total devotion to duty today. This guy had half of his lifeboats launched before his counterpart on the port side had even launched one. That says something about character and heroism” (James Cameron’s Titanic, p.129 (29.)). This is maybe why Murdoch has the privilege of being among those seen in Rose’s ‘dream sequence’ at the end of the film. He is standing next to Thomas Andrews, smiling as Rose drifts by and clapping along with the rest of the crowd of happy onlookers as Rose and Jack kiss.

However, not all viewers received the same message. Some felt that Murdoch was being branded a bribe taker, a murderer and a coward. Their response is analysed in The Dalbeattie Apology.