Marxist Overtones in Three Films by James Cameron

This article was written by James Kendrick and published in the Journal of Popular Film & Television on September 22, 1999. Due to the fact that the original article appears to no longer be available, I am making it available here. I did not write this article.

When James Cameron’s romantic disaster epic Titanic opened nationally in U.S. theaters on December 19, 1997, it was the most expensive film ever made. Like the ship from which the film takes its title, many saw Titanic as a prime example of capitalistic monetary excess—bigger is better. Co-financed by two major Hollywood studios (Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox), running months over schedule and millions over budget (it eventually cost around $200 million) and forced to delay its release by six months, many were predicting that Titanic would be a colossal economic failure (Paris). However, the film ended up making more than $1.1 billion in its initial theatrical release, and it won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Much of the economic success of Titanic can be attributed to its broad populism—it includes both a love story to attract women and a violent action-adventure tone to attract men, leaving little doubt that Janet Maslin’s comparing it to Gone with the Wind—still the most popular movie of all time in terms of the number of people who have seen it—is exceptionally fitting. Film critic Roger Ebert described the response of people who saw Titanic:

I hear the warmth in people’s voices when they discuss it and see the light in their eyes. Strangers are forever telling me about this or that movie they’ve just seen, and I can guess by their manner how enthusiastic they really are. Titanic moves them. They feel real affection for it.

There is a great irony that subverts the notable commercial success enjoyed by Titanic: The film fits comfortably into a revolutionary Marxist paradigm that condemns capitalistic excess and celebrates the heroism and humanism of the underclass. The film strongly contradicts the traditional anti-Marxist stance that there is no class structure in America, and seen together with two earlier Cameron films, Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), [1] Titanic posits a striking and meaningful critique of American capitalism that is all the more shocking when viewed in light of the film’s extraordinarily high budget and immense economic success. Taken together, Titanic, The Abyss, and Aliens present a strong ideology, as defined by Stefan Morawski: “the statement or symptomatic expression of social-class attitudes, interests, or habits of thought” (25).

Marxism and Film Theory

The notion that American mass popular art in general and cinema in particular work as a means to support the cultural status quo and keep the capitalist economic system in motion has been a basic tenet of Marxist theory for the last half-century. In Film Form, his compilation of groundbreaking essays on the nature of the filmic medium, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein wrote that “production, art and literature reflect the capitalist breadth and construction of the United States of America…[and]… American capitalism finds its sharpest and most expressive reflection in the American cinema” (196).

Noel Carroll divided the problems facing Marxist philosophers of art into two areas: First, they need to answer the question of whether “art can perform an emancipatory role in the class struggle, and, if it can, by what means can this role be effected” (53). Second, Marxists are faced with the question of why workers in the industrial West have not yet revolted against the capitalist system and made progress toward communism; in other words, why haven’t Karl Marx’s prophecies about the uprising of the proletariat and the disintegration of the class structure come true? Carroll suggested one possible answer to this question, which relates to the ideology inculcated by mass Western culture: “Capitalism, through its mass popular art industry—the movies, TV, radio, popular music, and so on—confuses, mystifies, and manipulates our minds in such a way as to thwart the development of emancipatory consciousness” (53).

For a long time, this aspect of Western culture was ignored by Marxist critics specifically because it did not fit their traditional interpretations of Karl Marx’s writings. However, it proved impossible to ignore mass art forms like the movies forever because, as Dave Laing pointed out, “these forms represent the vast majority of the cultural material for which the working class of Western capitalism provide the audience” (105). [2] Some American critics in the early 1930s recognized the potential power of the cinema, and even suggested that the superiority of Russian films was indicative of the superiority of Russian society (Lounsbury 226). Both “radical” and “liberal” critics of that time held “deep resentment against the commercial American movie, the symbol of comfortable middle class values” (227-28).

There has been little development in the production and marketing of motion pictures in the last sixty years to suggest that anything has changed since the first half of the century in terms of the broad ideology reflected in the filmic art produced in the United States. Although the Studio era has ended, ostensibly allowing smaller, independent features with radical political stances to be more readily made and seen, and the censorship of the Production Code has been replaced by the more flexible ratings system of the Motion Picture Association of America, there is still a great deal of cultural control exerted over movies—what they may depict and in what manner. As Robert Ray described the “New” American cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s: “superficially radical, internally conservative” (296). One reason for this is that, despite the fact that movies are an art form, they are still a business. As the average cost of producing and marketing a movie rises to more than $45 million, and it is no longer unheard of or even particularly surprising for a movie to cost more than $100 million, producers and directors find themselves having to adhere to traditional plotlines, characters, and ideologies that will not only avoid insulting the convictions of the movie viewers, but will draw record numbers of viewers through the door. Thus, there is little room for overt displays of hostility toward capitalism in the American cinema. Therefore, many films, the three discussed here included, have essentially reversed the trend Ray noted in the “New” American cinema. As we will see, films like The Abyss, Aliens, and Titanic are, in fact, superficially conservative, internally radical.

Ideology in the Films of James Cameron

At face value, James Cameron does not seem like a political or radical filmmaker. For most of his career, in fact, Cameron has been a fully Hollywoodized director, having worked with almost unerring success in a number of widely recognized genres. These include science fiction (The Terminator, 1984; Terminator 2, 1991; Aliens; and The Abyss), James Bondstyle action-adventure (True Lies, 1994), horror (Piranha 2: The Spawning, 1982), and historical drama (Titanic). However, when examined closely, these films display numerous conflicting characteristics that make them difficult to pigeonhole into one particular genre.

For instance, although Aliens bears numerous hallmarks of the science fiction genre (it takes place in the future, features spaceships, and spacescapes, relies heavily on technology and pseudoscience), it also has strong elements of action films (shoot-outs, explosions), horror films (jump-out-of-the-dark tactics, subjective camera movements), and an unconventional drama about motherhood. Similarly, The Abyss is a science fiction film about aliens who live at the bottom of the ocean, but it also features a wholly convincing romance between an about-to-be-divorced husband and wife that is not a subplot, but rather one of the film’s primary features both narratively and thematically. Therefore, Cameron has shown early in his career a tendency to create films that are more structurally and thematically complicated than they appear when first examined.

This is important to note because, as mentioned earlier, Cameron is not an overtly political director along the lines of Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) or Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo, 1975) or even modern political filmmakers like Michael Moore (Roger & Me, 1988) and Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, 1989; Malcolm X, 1993). The political/ideological content of Cameron’s films exists almost entirely on a secondary level that resides just beneath the primary narrative content. In Morawski’s terms, Cameron’s films most likely display “symptomatic expression … [where] the artist may or may not be aware of having adopted a position” (25). Often, the political thematic strands of Cameron’s films work their way into the narrative, especially in the characters’ dialogue; and, as we will see in the case of Titanic, the thematic elements are sometimes indispensable to the functioning of the narrative. However, there has never been a case in one of Cameron’s films where the political/ideological content is the central feature of the filmic text. His films are usually so large, loud, bold, and brashly entertaining that whatever ideological content exists in the films’ substructures is easily missed by the vast majority of the audience. But, as Frederic Jameson noted, to overlook these components of a film is to fail to reckon with the political content of daily life, with the political logic which is already inherent in the raw material with which the filmmaker must work: such political logic will then not manifest itself as an overt political message, nor will it transform the film into an unambiguous political statement. But it will certainly make for the emergence of profound formal contradictions to which the public cannot be sensitive, whether or not it yet possesses the conceptual instruments to understand what those contradictions mean. (38)

One of the strongest and most informative themes running throughout the films of James Cameron, which might be seen as a “formal contradiction,” is the Marxist struggle between classes, which is often embodied in power struggles between two or more characters. In fact, the power struggle between class-representational characters is so strong in Cameron’s films that it can almost be considered the defining characteristic of his work. In this way, the majority of Cameron’s films immediately function as a counterargument to what Jameson called “one of the most persistent leitmotivs in liberalism’s ideological arsenal … the notion of the disappearance of class” (35). In Cameron’s films— Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic, in particular—the class system is alive and well in numerous forms.

In addition, when seen in terms of a chronological-historical organization, these three films make the argument that class not only exists now, but has existed in the past and will exist in the future. The three films, taken in chronological order of the general time periods depicted in their narratives (and the reverse chronological order in which they were made), create a rough timeline of class struggle between the working class and the capitalists in the past (Titanic), present (The Abyss), and future (Aliens).

The Abyss: Capitalism in the Present

The Abyss, which was released in 1989 at the height of the Cold War, takes place in a definitely recognizable present. There are some features that vaguely suggest a near future, but the majority of the technology that appears in the film was a working reality in 1989.

The Abyss tells the story of an undersea oil drilling operation that is used by the U.S. military in an undercover operation to investigate a nuclear submarine that went down under mysterious circumstances. The film also features the discovery of an alien race that lives at the bottom of the two-mile deep Cayman Trench—the physical abyss of the title. The aliens in The Abyss function much like the aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); that is, they show the human race (the Americans and Russians, in particular) the error of their ways in always being prepared to annihilate each other with nuclear weapons. In its surface ideology, then, The Abyss is first and foremost a critique of the Cold War and the Reaganera nuclear arms race. However, the film also features several strong indicators that a class system is firmly intact, and more important, that writer/director Cameron is firmly on the side of the working class.

The hero of the story is Bud Brigman (Ed Harris), the chief “toolpusher” on the oil rig, who is constantly characterized as an Everyman. With his noble decency, handsome but undistinguished good looks, and New York Yankees baseball cap, he leads a group of lovable roughnecks who are the perfect embodiment of the virtuous working class. The film is structured so that it is Bud’s selfless sacrifice at the end of the film—his literally taking the world on his shoulders in disarming a nuclear bomb at the bottom of the abyss—that saves the human race from annihilation by the superior alien race. His dynamic opposite is Lieutenant Hiram Coffey (Michael Biehn), the head of a Navy SEAL team sent down to the oil rig to run the military operation. Coffey is characterized as a stern, thoughtless, harsh disciplinarian. In fact, he literally goes insane with high pressure nervous syndrome brought about by the intense pressure of the water and becomes delusional and paranoid—every worker’s worst nightmare.

The Abyss posits a somewhat ambiguous class structure that is assembled of the working class, the capitalists, and the military. In this film, the military appears to control the capitalist system while being, at the same time, an extension of it. The capitalist businessmen of Benthic Petroleum, represented primarily by the weak and ineffectual Gerard Kirkhill (Ken Jenkins), at first seem to be used at the whim of the military-industrial complex represented by Lieutenant Coffey. However, when viewed from the standpoint that men like Coffey risk their lives protecting the United States from the Soviet Union, thus preserving the capitalist system enjoyed by men like Kirkhill, it is, in fact, the military that is being used by the capitalists. Either way, they exist in a symbiotic relationship in The Abyss and can be viewed as two heads of the same creature.

The primary struggle in The Abyss is between Bud and Lieutenant Coffey, and the film contrasts their drastically different tactics in running an organization. Whereas Coffey makes demands of the workers to little effect, Bud simply asks them with decency and respect. To the oil drillers, Bud is one of them because he acts like them, works side-by-side with them, shares meals with them, and so on. Coffey is the other, the military extension of capitalistic power who simply wants to order his subordinates around. There is one scene in particular that illustrates this struggle: Coffey brashly orders Bud’s oil workers to perform certain tasks, and all of the workers refuse his demands. There is a long pause, and Bud, who realizes these chores need to be done regardless of who orders them, gently goes to each worker and asks that each of them perform the exact same task Coffey ordered them to perform. Bud gets results; Coffey doesn’t.

Within the film, there are a number of smaller scenes that are indicative of Cameron’s feelings toward capitalist greed. For instance, the dialogue Bud uses to describe his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s new boyfriend is characteristic of how the film views businessmen: Bud calls him “what’s-his-name,” “the Suit,” “Mr. Brooks Brothers,” and “Mr. BMW”—all unapproving names that suggest the boyfriend is defined by his money. Another example is Kirkhill. When he is first mentioned by one of the oil workers, he is simply referred to as “that new company man,” to which Bud adds, “That guy doesn’t know his butt from a rathole.” Kirkhill is seen as a weak man, a bureaucrat who stands around and tries to look important but never actually does anything of real worth. The real work is being done by the oil workers, and Kirkhill is merely on the sidelines.

Aliens: Capitalism in the Future

If Kirkhill is a weak, ineffectual capitalist who might be seen as the perfect embodiment of what Karl Marx referred to as “capitalist alienation,” then Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), the capitalist at the heart of Aliens, is the perfect embodiment of the evil capitalist, the one who is the ultimate exploiter of the working class. This is especially unsettling when viewing the film as the future to The Abyss’s present and Titanic’s past. If anyone continues to insist on the legitimacy of Marx’s predictions about the proletariat uprising, Aliens responds that it is still hasn’t happened by the mid-twenty-first century.

In the film, Burke is the antithesis of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the hero. Ripley, the only surviving character from the original film, Alien (1979), is a traditional laborer, much like Bud Brigman. Earthy, natural, strong, and motherly, she is both an attractive and a powerful woman who can fight and labor alongside the tough marines with whom she travels to the planet LB-426 to investigate an apparent alien invasion into a colonial settlement.

Aliens complicates the symbiotic capitalist/military relationship set up in The Abyss by making the interstellar marines much like The Abyss’s likable oil drillers. The marines, ideologically, are subservient to the capitalists, a fact that is never so obvious as when Burke declares that the marine in charge, Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn in a very different role from his role in The Abyss) cannot make an important monetary decision because “he’s just a grunt.” Read together, The Abyss and Aliens seem to suggest that the military is, more or less, at the whim of the capitalists. In The Abyss, the military men exercised a great deal of power, but it was power granted them by the capitalists. In Aliens, the military men are once again working with the capitalists, but over the course of the film, they begin to rebel. Either way, it is still the businessmen who are ultimately in charge.

Aliens is even more insistent than The Abyss on the omnipresence of an all-powerful global capitalist “company.” In The Abyss, the company was Benthic Petroleum; however, within the first hour of the film, the company is isolated from the action by a hurricane, leaving only its extension, the Navy SEAL team, to represent it. In Aliens, the “company” is perpetually present in the narrative in the character of Burke. Burke’s employer is referred to only vaguely as “the Company,” with the exception of one scene that displays a sign reading: “Weyland-Yutan Corp.—’Building Better Worlds.'” The irony is that the company is not building better worlds. Its vaguely insulting term for the terra-formers—the laborers who set up atmosphere processors to build these “better worlds”—is a “shake’n’bake colony,” indicating how unimportant and expendable they are in the eyes of the company businessmen. In fact, the film makes clear that the rescue mission at the center of the narrative is hardly about saving the colonists; instead, it is about saving the “multimillion dollar installation.”

When Burke, ever the ambitious capitalist, realizes that the installation is a lost cause, he makes arrangements to use the hostile alien race—the cause of all his company’s problems—as a source of revenue at the expense of Ripley and the marines. As Burke puts it to Ripley: “Look, those two specimens are worth millions to the bioweapons division, right? Now, if you’re smart, we can both come out this heroes, and we will be set up for life.” As Marx wrote: “The increase in the quantity of objects is accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potency for mutual swindling and mutual plundering” (61). In Aliens, the aliens themselves are the “new product” for Burke, and he is so intent on getting them for the company that his “swindling” and “plundering” involves the murder of everyone else around him. The film makes clear that it was he who was initially responsible for the deaths of the colonists by sending them to the derel ict alien spacecraft, and he then connives a murderous plan to sneak the alien embryos back for the company. Ripley explains to the marines:

He [Burke] figured he could get an alien back through quarantine if one of us was impregnated—whatever you call it—and then frozen for the trip home. Nobody would know about the embryos we were carrying … the only way he could do it is if he sabotaged certain freezers on the way home—namely yours. Then he could jettison the bodies and make up whatever story he wanted to.

Burke is consumed with the notion of making money for the company, whereas everyone else in the outfit, with whom he is stranded on the planet and trapped by aliens, is worried only about simply staying alive. This is also depicted in an earlier scene when Ripley recommends destroying the entire complex as the only way to be sure all the aliens are killed. Burke’s immediate response, informed only by his capitalist instinct, is: “Hold on, hold on, wait a second. This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it … this is a multimillion dollar installation. …” Ripley sums up Burke and his obsession with monetary wealth—and, therefore, Cameron’s filmic conception of capitalism run amok—perfectly when she says: “I don’t know which species is worse, us or them [the aliens]. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamned percentage.”

Titanic: Capitalism in the Past

No matter how explicit Cameron made his views on class and power struggles in The Abyss and Aliens, both films serve primarily as an ideological warm-up for Titanic, which makes the Marxist class struggle the dominant paradigm within which the narrative is constructed. Titanic, which takes place in 1912, represents the last vestiges of the Victorian class structure, and because it is Cameron’s most recent film, it is also the most unambiguous in terms of its statements about class struggle and its critique of capitalism.

The Titanic—the ship itself—is a perfect microcosm of the class struggle. The ship is stratified socially because it is stratified physically. As in reality, the lower classes cannot reach the same level as the upper classes because they are literally held back by physical reality (this is best symbolized during the sinking sequence when the third-class passengers are locked in the lower levels of the ship by iron gates while the first-class passengers fill the life boats). Also, like traditional Marxist writings, Titanic tends to see its worldly microcosm in terms of two classes—bourgeoisie and proletariat. That is, as Marxism tends to overlook the middle class, Titanic rarely if ever mentions second class. It is only the top and bottom tiers that are of importance.

And, of course, the Titanic itself is a ready-made symbol of the folly of capitalist greed—the desire to make a ship that is faster, stronger, and more luxurious than any other ship out there for no other reason than to satisfy the industrial capitalists’ ambition. The builders of the Titanic, represented by the ostentatious and eventually cowardly Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), are essentially described by Marx when he wrote: “[E]very person speculates on creating a new need in another so as to drive him to a fresh sacrifice, to place him in a new dependence and to seduce him into a new mode of gratification and therefore economic ruin” (61). If ever there was an industrial creation that served little purpose other than creating “a new mode of gratification,” it was the Titanic.

Titanic is ostensibly a romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet). Because their characters are from strongly divergent class backgrounds (Jack being a penniless bohemian and Rose being an heiress engaged to the wealthy son of a steel baron), their characters are easily viewed as symbolic of the sides of the prototypical Marxist class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That Rose eventually defects from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat in her own mini-revolution is further indicative of Cameron’s ideological stance. Rose’s leaving the bourgeoisie is just one way in which Cameron asserts that he is strongly on the side of the less fortunate and powerless—the proletariat of the Marxist class struggle. His taking a stance against the rich and powerful can be found in every facet of the film, in both the surface texts and the subtexts.

One of the most obvious indicators of Cameron’s position is how he draws his characters. Jack is an immediately likable fellow, whereas his wealthy opposite, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), is immediately dislikable. Cameron first introduces Jack in a poker game in which he wins his tickets on Titanic. Jack is seen as tough (he plays poker well, smokes, and drinks in rough bars), but he is also sensitive (when almost attacked by one of the losing poker players, he doesn’t immediately lash back, but rather scrunches his eyes in anticipation of the blow). Most of all, he is alive, demonstrated by his joyful running through the crowd, constantly laughing and smiling. Jack is the essence of what Marx considered an independent man:

A being only considers himself independent when he stands on his own feet; and he only stands on his own feet when he owes his existence to himself. A man who lives by the grace of another regards himself as a dependent being. But I live completely by the grace of another if I owe him not only the sustenance of my life, but if he has, moreover, created my life—if he is the source of my life, and if it is not of my own creation, my life has necessarily a source of this kind outside it. … The transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human sense and attributes; but it is this emancipation precisely because these sense and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human. (69)

Thus, when Jack seats himself at the front of the Titanic as she begins her journey, screaming to no one in particular, “I’m the king of the world!” the statement is both ironic and telling of Cameron’s position in the class struggle. The fact is, Jack is the furthest thing from being “king of the world” because, historically, kings have supported their positions with money and power, the two very things Jack is lacking. However, when viewed in light of Marx’s writing about “the transcendence of private property,” the meaning of this statement can be taken in a different and more informative manner, one that is further explicated during the dining scene, where Jack tells his wealthy companions:

I got everything I need right here with me: I got the air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. I love waking up in the morning and not knowing what’s going to happen or who I’m going to meet or where I’m going to wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge, and now here I am, on the grandest ship in the world, having champagne with you fine people. I figure, life’s a gift, and I don’t intend on wasting it. You never know what hand you’re going to get dealt next. You have to learn to take life as it comes at you. To make each day count.

Thus, by declaring himself “king of the world,” Jack is reinventing the popular historical notion of what it means to be king. He strips it of the necessity of power and wealth, and instead invests the word with the simplicity of mere happiness in life. To be king, all one has to do is be satisfied and happy, in other words, human, which Cameron, with his use of Jack’s character, argues does not require monetary wealth.

This theme is struck a short time later in the film when Cal mistakenly tells Rose: “We are royalty, Rose.” By contrasting these two references to royalty, Cameron shows that it is Jack who is the true king because, although poor, he is perfectly happy, satisfied, and in control of his life. In stark contrast, Cal and Ruth, Rose’s domineering mother, whom conventional capitalist society would deem American royalty, are two of the most unhappy characters in the film. More important, their unhappiness is intricately linked to their false belief that money and the accumulation of private property are the key to success in life. Thus, they are the ultimate examples of what Marx called “dependent beings,” for their existence relies wholly on their ability to maintain their position within the capitalist society. They live completely, as Marx wrote, “by the grace of another.” This is illustrated best in the scene in which Ruth implores Rose to marry Cal because they are actually in debt, and they need his money to maintain their societal position, lest Ruth be reduced to working as a seamstress. The best illustration of Ruth and Cal as dependent beings is not actually depicted in the film but is referred to in Rose’s voice-over narrative: the fact that Cal reportedly shot himself after losing all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. The dependent link between life itself and money is never so explicit as when someone, through suicide, purposefully deprives himself of the former because he lacks the latter.

Not surprisingly, Cal believes he can literally buy Rose’s love. His presenting her with the Heart of the Ocean, a huge blue diamond in a necklace, has multiple meanings. First of all, it is literally the locus of the plot: All the action in the film grows out of the search for the diamond in the modern-day story, which causes old Rose, for the first time, to tell someone of her short romance with Jack. However, the diamond itself is used by Cameron in a changing symbolic capacity. When Cal first puts the diamond around Rose’s neck, it is the ultimate symbol of his trying to buy her affection. The fact that it is so large, so rare, and so expensive illustrates how far he will go to have her. Because Cal’s character is so cold and essentially unloving, the only way he can express his desire is through monetary gifts and the exhibition of power.

In the scene immediately preceding his giving Rose the diamond, where Jack has just rescued Rose from the bow of the ship but is mistakenly accused of having attacked her, Cal first displays anger at Jack before he displays compassion for his cold, shaken fiancee. That his primary urge is to demand, “What made you think you could put your hands on my fiancee?” explains a great deal about Cal and his class. He seems almost less worried that Rose might have been a potential rape victim than that someone in a lower class merely touched her. Later, when that misunderstanding is reconciled, he does precisely to Jack what he does to Rose: He shows his emotions through money. When Rose intimates to him that he might want to do something to show his gratitude to Jack for having saved her, Cal’s first impulse is to offer him money. When Rose scoffs at this notion—”Is that the going rate for saving the woman you love?”—Cal instead invites Jack to dinner. While on the surface this seems a genuine gesture, when viewed through the prism of the power struggle it is apparent that the dinner invitation is really a chance for Cal to exercise control. By inviting Jack to dinner, he is demonstrating his ability to have whoever he wants in whatever part of the ship he chooses; because the Titanic itself is sharply divided by class, without Cal’s blessing, Jack would not be allowed in the first-class dining room.

Thus in this first instance, the Heart of the Ocean is a symbol of the power and monetary wealth that Cal so recklessly wields. The diamond is not seen again until after Rose “changes her mind” and decides to allow herself to love Jack despite their differences. The scene that follows is, like the diamond itself, an indispensable plot device used in the framing story to move the narrative forward. Rose allows Jack to draw her in the nude, and the completed drawing, later discovered by the modern-day searchers, is another device that draws old Rose to tell her tale.

Of primary importance here is Rose’s lying naked for Jack to see wearing only the diamond, a physical act that is rich in symbolic meaning beyond the romantic sensuality of the scene. First of all, when Rose sheds her robe and allows Jack to see her, it is like a literal shedding of her class distinction. One of the easiest and, therefore, primary means of distinguishing members of one class from another is their clothing. Titanic makes a grand distinction in this area by using elaborate and colorful costume design for the clothing worn by the first-class passengers that stands in stark contrast to the simple clothing of various shades of white, brown, and black worn by the third-class passengers. So, when Rose drops her expensive silk robe, it is symbolic of her willfully dropping her class status so that she and Jack can be together.

The fact that Rose is naked both physically and in terms of social class, but still wearing the Heart of the Ocean, invests the diamond with new meaning. Instead of being symbolic of Cal’s money, it becomes symbolic of love that knows no class distinctions. By wearing it while being sketched nude—something that was extremely provocative and scandalous in 1912, especially among the bourgeoisie—Rose strips the diamond of its association with first class. It instead becomes an object only of beauty, not of money. That she holds onto it for the next seventy-five years without telling anyone, and at the end of the film purposely drops it into the ocean where it will be lost forever, is telling of just how little she thinks of it in terms of monetary value.

It is only after the nude sketching scene that Rose openly rejects Cal by consciously evading him and, in one instance, giving him an obscene gesture. A short time later, after physically consummating their relationship, Rose completes her shift from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat by telling Jack: “When the boat stops, I’m getting off with you.” Thus, she has joined Jack in becoming human in Marx’s terms because she transcends private property by rejecting it, allowing for “the complete emancipation of all human sense and attributes.” She ceases to be a dependent being.


The battle for power between the capitalists and the proletariat and the symbolic removal of monetary wealth from highly prized objects constitute the overriding essence of the class struggle as portrayed in the films of James Cameron. His primary characters are almost always upstanding, headstrong members of the proletariat, whether that be a waitress in The Terminator or a toolpusher in The Abyss, and their adversaries are typically spineless members of the capitalist system or its henchmen. Whether dealing with capitalism as represented in the past, present, or future, Cameron consistently makes clear through his narratives, his characters, his thematic subtexts, and the general tone of his films that he is strongly on the side of the exploited underclass. Although he uses different means to depict the underclass in his films (for instance, the military as the exploiters in The Abyss and the exploited in Aliens), the underlying ideology is clear.

This paradigm has been effected in both the narratives and the symbolic and ideological subtexts of three of Cameron’s most important films—Aliens, The Abyss, and Titanic—without disturbing, in any substantial manner, the surface of each film. Thus, although these films hardly constitute “the emancipatory capability of art sought by Althusserian Marxism” (Carroll 54), they are still rich in Marxist ideology pertaining to class struggle.

JAMES KENDRICK is a doctoral student in film and media studies at Indiana University. His research interests include cinema history, cult and horror films, and popular culture.


(1.) It is important to note that, for the purpose of this article, the versions of Aliens and The Abyss under discussion are not the shorter versions released theatrically, but rather the “Special Editions” or “Director’s Cut” later released on laser disc. These extended versions were chosen for study because, in this researcher’s opinion, they reflect much more closely the original and complete vision James Cameron had of these films. Both films were edited prior to theatrical release to reduce their running time so that they could be shown more times a day. Especially for The Abyss, this removed much of the political/ideological content that is so important for this study.

(2.) There has been a certain amount of debate as to who makes up the majority of a movie audience. Although ticket prices have increased in recent years, movies are still the most inexpensive form of entertainment for working-class families. However, Ray argued that “film historians have demonstrated that, from the start, the American movie industry sought to attract the middle-class ticket-buyer” (35).


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    Aliens: Special Edition. Dir. James Cameron. With Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, and Bill Paxton. Twentieth Century Fox, 1986. Videodisc, 154 min.Carroll, Noel. Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory. New York: Columbia UP, 1988.
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By Parrish Miller

This is my personal website where I discuss issues of philosophy, politics, and survival from a libertarian perspective.

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