The film opens on the fictional island of Svardlov in the far Barents Sea above the Soviet Union where an American spy breaks into an old mine where he discovers the frozen body of a US Army sergeant and mining expert Jake Hobart. Next to the frozen corpses is a newspaper from 1912, as well as some mining tools from the early part of the 20th century. Using a radiation meter, the spy discovers that what he seeks, an extremely rare mineral named byzanium, was there but had been mined out leaving only traces. He is then chased and shot by Soviet forces but rescued at the last moment by Dirk Pitt (Richard Jordan), a former U.S. Navy officer and a clandestine operator.
It is explained by scientist Gene Seagram (David Selby) and the head of The National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA, a NASA-like agency for sea exploration) admiral James Sandecker (Jason Robards) that the mineral their man was trying to find is needed to fuel a powerful new defense system, codenamed "The Sicilian Project". This system, using laser technology, would be able to destroy any incoming nuclear missiles during an attack and "make nuclear war obsolete".
The CIA and Pitt soon find out that boxes of the raw mineral were loaded onto the Belfast-built RMS Titanic by an American in April 1912. A search is then conducted in the North Atlantic to locate the sunken ocean liner. The search team is aided by one of the Titanic's last survivors (Alec Guinness) who explains he was also the last person to see the American alive. Just before the Titanic foundered, the sailor said he locked the man inside the ship's vault containing the boxes of mineral, his last words being "thank God for Southby!" At this point it is decided that the only way to get a hold of the byzanium is to literally "raise the Titanic" from the ocean floor. Pitt comes up with a salvage plan that Sandecker presents to the president. The President signs off on the plan and Pitt is put in charge of the operation.
At this time the Soviet KGB station chief in Washington D.C., Andre Prevlov (Bo Brundin), is receiving bits of information on the project and leaks them to a reporter, Dana Archibald (Anne Archer), who is also Seagram's lover as well as a former girlfriend of Pitt's. The story blows the project's secret cover and Sandecker must hold a press conference to explain why the ship is being raised. Questions are raised about byzanium, but are not answered.
After a lengthy search, the Titanic is located and the search team, with help from the U.S. Navy, begins the dangerous job of raising the ship from the seabed. One of the submersibles, Starfish, experiences a cabin flood and implodes. Another submersible, the Deep Quest, is attempting to clear debris from one of the upper decks when it suddenly tears free of its supports, crashes through the skylight above the main staircase and becomes jammed. Pitt decides they must attempt to raise the ship before the Deep Quest crew suffocates.
Eventually, the rusting Titanic is brought to the surface by using explosives to break the hull loose from the bottom suction and compressed air tanks to fill buoyancy aids. During the ascent, the Deep Quest safely breaks away from the ship.
When Prevlov, who has been aboard a nearby Soviet spy ship, sees the Titanic, he arranges a fake distress call to draw the American naval escorts away from the operation. He then meets with Sandecker, Pitt and Seagram aboard their vessel. He tells them that his government knows all about the mineral and challenges them for both salvage of the Titanic as well as ownership of ore, claiming it was illegally taken from Russian soil. Prevlov says that if there is to be a "superior weapon" made from the mineral, then "Russia must have it!" Sandecker tells Prevlov they knew he was coming and what he would threaten them with. Pitt then escorts him to the deck where U.S. fighter jets and a nuclear attack submarine have arrived to protect the Titanic from their attempted piracy. Prevlov leaves in defeat.
The ship is then towed into New York harbor and moored at the old White Star Line dock, its original intended destination. The arrival is greeted with much fanfare including huge cheering crowds, escorting ships, and aircraft. On entering the watertight vault, the salvage team discovers the mummified remains of the American, but no mineral. Instead, they find only boxes of gravel. As they contemplate their probable failure, Sandecker tells Pitt and Seagram that in addition to powering the defensive system, they were actually thinking of a way to weaponize the byzanium and create a super bomb, which went against everything the scientist believed in. As Pitt listens, he goes through the belongings of the dead American found in the vault and finds an un-mailed postcard. He then realizes that there was a clue in those final words, "Thank God for Southby". The postcard showed a church and graveyard in the village of Southby on the English coast, the place the American had arranged a fake burial for the frozen miner Jake Hobart prior to sailing back to the United States on the Titanic. Pitt and Seagram alone go the small graveyard and find that the byzanium had indeed been buried there. They decide to leave the mineral in the grave because they agree its existence would destabilize the status quo that maintains the peace between the West and the Soviet Union.Jason Robards as Admiral James SandeckerRichard Jordan as Dirk PittDavid Selby as Dr. Gene SeagramAnne Archer as Dana ArchibaldSir Alec Guinness as John BigalowBo Brundin as Captain Andre PrevlovM. Emmet Walsh as Master Chief Vinnie WalkerJ.D. Cannon as Captain Joe BurkeNorman Bartold as Admiral KemperElya Baskin as MarganinDirk Blocker as MerkerRobert Broyles as WillisPaul Carr as CIA Director NicholsonMichael C. Gwynne as BohannonHarvey Lewis as Kiel
The film endured an arduous pre-production process. Lew Grade read the script by Clive Cussler and became interested, thinking there was potential for a series along the lines of the James Bond movies. He discovered that Stanley Kramer was attached to direct and Grade said he would buy the rights to the book and let Kramer direct and produce. Pre-production began and models of the ship were built; Grade said that the models were at least two or three times larger than they should be. Eventually Kramer quit due to creative differences.
Production costs spiralled to US$15 million as work was undertaken to find a ship that could be converted to look like the sunken Titanic. The screenplay also underwent numerous rewrites. Novelist Larry McMurtry - who disliked Cussler's novel considering it "less a novel than a manual on how to raise a very large boat from deep beneath the sea" - claims that he was one of approximately 17 writers who worked on the screenplay and the only one not to petition for a credit on the finished film. Cussler himself was furious with the final result, because most of the original plot had been jettisoned leaving a hollow shell of his story; additionally he felt that the casting was wrong.
Elliott Gould was offered a lead role but turned it down.
The film was shot in 1978 and released in 1980. An old Greek ocean liner, SS Athinai, was converted into a replica of the Titanic. A scale model was used for close-up underwater scenes. At the time of filming it was not known that the Titanic broke in half as she foundered. Therefore the ship appears intact in the film. The wreck of the real Titanic was found in 1985.
A 10-tonne 50 ft (15 m) scale model was also built for the scene where the Titanic is raised to the surface. Costing $7 million, the model initially proved too large for any existing water tank. This problem led to one of the world's first horizon tanks being constructed at the Mediterranean Film Studios near Kalkara, Malta. The 10 million-gallon tank could create the illusion a ship was at sea. The Titanic model was raised more than 50 times until a satisfactory shot was acquired. Following the completion of filming, the scale model was left to rust for 30 years at the side of the horizon tank (at 35°53′36.36″N 14°32′4.41″E). In January 2003 a storm caused damage to the model. By 2012 the remains of the metal structure had been moved to a new location closer to the sea (at 35°53′37.51″N 14°32′6.13″E).
Renowned Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning English composer John Barry created the film's musical score which became the most acclaimed aspect of the production and is considered by many to be one of the very best of Barry's career. Barry composed several themes for the film reflecting the different moods on screen from somewhat militaristic reflecting the cold war aspects of the plot to the dark, cold brooding compositions reflected in the underwater scenes. The best theme however is for the Titanic herself in a light, soaring and beautiful piece reflecting the Gilded Age that the ship was built in. Played before the opening credits over a stirring montage of actual photos of the period of the ship being constructed and the very few photos to survive of the sailing, it is an emotionally moving sequence considered by some to be the best part of the film. The theme is also used in several other sequences as when the ship is raised, her sailing into New York Harbor and the end credits.
Though the original recordings of the music have been lost, Silva Screen Records, along with Nic Raine, one of Barry's orchestrators, commissioned a re-recording in 1999 of the complete score with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. This recording—though considered one of the very best of the re-creations of one of Barry's lost scores done by Silva Screen—still lacks the personal touch of the composer, with some tracks being recorded at a faster tempo and with different parts of the orchestra being highlighted.
Christian Clemmensen, reviewer of Filmtracks.com, later considered it one of the best of Barry's career, stating: "When the film came out in the theatres, the score was a remarkably fresh and unique experience, and out of the novelty of that style of music arose the popularity of techniques that would inform Barry's Oscar-winning efforts for Out of Africa and Dances With Wolves. The score was composed during the same creative period in which Barry wrote another of his most influential and well-received scores, for Somewhere in Time, as well as another for the film High Road to China. Barry credited the lush, haunting and beautiful compositions (For all his scores in this period) to a time where he had recently lost both parents and was going through a very emotional time in his life. Sadly, there was no release of a soundtrack recording at the time and the loss of the original session tapes were probably due to the bankruptcy and selling off of the assets of AFD, the film's distributor. The very expensive six track recording tapes were probably erased and recorded over as British productions tended to do at that time. Supposedly there was a soundtrack release planned but when the film became a box office failure it was deemed too costly and canceled."
In August 2014 Network On Air were to release Raise The Titanic on Blu-ray in the UK, with the only known available original Barry score. Which tracks it would contain is unknown. There are tapes from M&E which contain the score plus sound effects. There is no known source for the original, complete score.
Raise the Titanic received mixed reviews; a 50% "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
At the time of its release, Cussler was so disgusted with the film adaption of his book he refused to give any further permission for cinematic works based on his books. (In 2006 Cussler sued the filmmakers of Sahara, a film adaption of his 1992 book, for failing to consult him on the script when it also made huge financial losses.)
The film grossed $7 million against a budget of $40 million.
Lew Grade later wrote that he "thought the movie was quite good" particularly enjoying the actual raising of the Titanic and the scene where Dirk Pitt walks into the wrecked ballroom. He blamed the failure of the film in part on the release of a TV movie on the topic SOS Titanic (released theatrically through EMI Films, of which Grade's brother, Lord Delfont, was then chairman).
Raise The Titanic, along with other contemporary flops, has been credited with prompting Grade's withdrawal from continued involvement with the film industry.1st Golden Raspberry AwardNominated: Worst PictureNominated: Worst Supporting ActorNominated: Worst Screenplay