Did Jack Really Need to Sacrifice Himself for Rose?

James Cameron commissioned a study to prove that his characters’ tragic ending was inevitable

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack and Kate Winslet as Rose after the Titanic has sunk
For 25 years, skeptics have been insisting that Jack and Rose could have both survived on their makeshift raft. CBS via Getty Images

Spoiler alert: Titanic doesn’t have a happy ending.

James Cameron’s 1997 film follows Jack and Rose, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, respectively. They’re both passengers aboard the Titanic, but they’re from vastly different worlds, separated by class. Of course, they fall in love anyway. And when the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, Jack performs one final act of love: He helps Rose onto a floating wooden board—and remains in the freezing water beside her. Rose makes it. Jack doesn’t.

Over the past 25 years, the gesture has racked up a whole lot of skepticism. Did Jack really need to sacrifice his own life for Rose to survive? Couldn’t he have shared that piece of wood with her?

But Cameron, who has always maintained that the script calls for Jack to die, is determined to put an end to these questions. “We have done a scientific study to put this whole thing to rest and drive a stake through its heart once and for all,” he tells the Toronto Sun’s Mark Daniell.

The study consisted of “a thorough forensic analysis with a hypothermia expert who reproduced the raft from the movie” as well as “two stunt people who were the same body mass of Kate and Leo,” Cameron continues. “We put sensors all over them and inside them and we put them in ice water and we tested to see whether they could have survived through a variety of methods. And the answer was, there was no way they both could have survived. Only one could survive.”

It’s not the first time Titanic’s tragic ending has been put to the test. Jack and Rose’s raft was the subject of a 2012 episode of “MythBusters,” which came to the conclusion that Jack and Rose could have shared the board and made it out alive—if they secured Rose’s life jacket underneath.

“I think you guys are missing the point here,” Cameron said in the episode. “The script said Jack dies. He has to die. So maybe we screwed up and the board should have been a little tiny bit smaller, but the dude’s going down.”

Besides, the hosts of “MythBusters” didn’t account for how the water’s temperature would have affected their proposed plan of action, Cameron told the Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern in 2017. “You’re underwater tying this thing on in 28-degree water, and that’s going to take you five to ten minutes, so by the time you come back up you’re already dead,” he said. 

The findings of Cameron’s study will be explained in a National Geographic special in February 2023. Around the same time, a remastered version of Titanic will hit theaters in honor of the film’s 25th anniversary. 

With his special, Cameron hopes the skeptics will finally leave him alone. “Maybe … maybe … after 25 years, I won’t have to deal with this anymore,” he tells the Toronto Sun.

Sarah Purkey, an oceanographer at the University of California at San Diego, tells the Washington Post’s Praveena Somasundaram that any answers will come down to buoyancy and gravity: The buoyancy of the wooden board must be greater than or equal to the gravity from Jack and Rose. “That’s how boats float, and that’s how a piece of driftwood floats,” she says. “And it’s going to sink if gravity is more than its buoyancy.”

But either way, she adds, if the study gets people thinking about physics, “then it’s great.”