The controversial $3 million French-American expedition to the wreck of the RMS Titanic finally bared its booty last night on television: about $5,000 in gold coins and a handful of discolored jewelry and bank notes extracted from a safe and satchel found on the ocean floor.
A panel of experts appeared distinctly unimpressed by the artifacts, which the expedition had described at the time of their finding as "a fortune in coins and jewelry." The legendary assistant purser's safe, the opening of which was to highlight the two-hour special from Paris, seemed to have collapsed during its recovery and then been partially reassembled. Precisely which artifacts it contained was never exactly made clear.
The much ballyhooed two-hour "Return to the Titanic ... Live," a worldwide hookup beamed from ,1 Paris, was the product of Westgate Productions in Hollywood, which earlier opened Al Capone's vault on television amid similar fanfare. The vault proved to contain nothing of interest.
Last night, in a bid to deflect worldwide criticism of the expedition as an unseemly exploitation of a tragedy still within human memory, host Telly Savalas strutted through a rambling and at times confusing narration of the Titanic's last voyage and of the expedition's efforts to "save these artifacts from destruction."
But the program -- and, apparently, the expedition -- added little to the Titanic story. The most intriguing of the recovered artifacts shown were a stickpin initialed "RLB," a bracelet with "Amy" spelled out in tiny diamonds and a gold pendant engraved "May this be your lucky star."
While cameras focused repeatedly on machine-gun-toting guards, and a James Bond-style musical theme throbbed at commercial breaks, Savalas wisecracked his way through the remnants of a night when more than 1,500 died. "That looks like something I lost last week," the bald actor said as plastic-gloved experts poked through watery dishes of jewelry. "If you get to a hair clipper, you know it's not mine."
He and the show's writers attempted at one point to link the curse of an Egyptian mummy with the Titanic's sinking, and, in an equally bizarre turn, brought out a man who claimed his father heard the real story of the Titanic sinking from an unnamed card-playing buddy in World War I France.
According to his theory, there was a fire smoldering in one of the Titanic's coal bunkers as the ship raced toward New York, and a subsequent explosion sank the ship. The story of hitting an iceberg -- many passengers actually witnessed the impact -- was supposedly concocted for insurance purposes.
Savalas then interviewed a man identified as a naval expert who said a coal fire could not have occurred near a mysterious 30-foot hole found near the bow, but, if there had been a fire, it could conceivably have caused the Titanic's captain to keep his ship at high speed despite warnings of ice ahead.
The program also showed silver soup ladles, china and brass artifacts and a small figure of a cupid salvaged by the French submersible Nautile from the debris around the sunken ship, and documented the sub's retrieval of items with its articulated arms.
Its most surprising aspect, however, may have been the indifferent quality of its undersea camera work and the paucity of compelling images from the ocean floor. Despite months on the site, the expedition displayed no film to rival the "Secrets of the Titanic" program produced by the National Geographic Society after last year's U.S. expedition to the wreck site and provided few maps or graphics to help newcomers to the story understand what happened or where.
Instead, in an apparent bid to lend respectability to their enterprise, Westgate producer John Joslyn and partner Doug Llewelyn, (better known as emcee of "People's Court") unveiled their efforts before a "black-tie audience" grouped around nightclub tables in Paris' Institute of Science and Industry, and had Savalas assure us repeatedly that what we were seeing was important. The French and their ocean science deserve better.
It is truly difficult to make a dive to a sunken ship look uninteresting. "Return to the Titanic ... Live" managed to do so, and it managed something more impressive as well. With its overexposed shots of a garishly lit Eiffel Tower, its quiz-show "panel of experts" and the self-important mannerisms of Savalas (who stumbled over a chair early in the program), Joslyn and Llewelyn managed to make even Paris look cheap.