The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
Winsor McCay, who styled himself the “inventor of animated cartoons,” returns with a much more serious movie than his previous “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” entries. This time, it’s a propaganda piece about the event that galvanized Americans to war fever – three years after the fact.
As with his previous movies, this begins with some live action images of McCay at work on the project. Although the intertitles make much of the thousands of individual drawings that were created in the making of the film, what we mostly see is McCay researching the event by looking at a big picture of the RMS Lusitania and talking with a man about it. The first bit of animation he shows is simply the ocean waves – an effect he could be justifiably proud of. It looks to me as though he filmed several layers of background waves in order to give the effect of the rolling ocean some degree of three-dimensionality. Then our story begins, with the departure of the Lusitania from port, its sighting of the Irish coast, and the sudden attack of the German U-Boat. We see the explosion and lots of people being lowered in life boats, then a sudden second explosion and the ship’s slow descent into the ocean. All the while, tiny things (presumably human beings) are dropping off of the ship into the ocean. Every now and then we cut to an image of heads bobbing in the water near over-crowded life boats. The intertitles play up the drama and cruelty of the situation, reminding us of mothers drowning with their tiny babies at their breasts, and also showing us a brief gallery of the more famous victims. It ends by reminding us that the Kaiser pinned a medal on the captain of the sub – “AND YET THEY ASK US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”
In all, the animation of this movie is adequate, but not terribly exciting from a modern standpoint. The print appears in black and white, as opposed to the hand-painted color of parts of “Little Nemo,” and while that adds to the bleak message, it makes for a visually unsatisfying film. The intertitles come across today as highly jingoistic and naïve, although for that generation they were probably very effective. The Lusitania was their 9/11, after all, and Americans were just as shocked and outraged then as they would be eighty six years later. It took Americans longer to get riled up, in those days – it was two whole years before Woodrow Wilson declared war, after Germany announced in 1917 that it would return to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite all diplomatic efforts in the years since the attack. This partly explains the vehemence of McCay’s intertitles: He was still trying to convince isolationists and apologists for Germany that the cause was right (or at least to drown them out with patriotic cheering). It also took him almost two years to complete the movie, so it isn’t as though he got a sudden whim after the US declared war. The film is therefore an interesting piece of the history of animation, and the history of American attitudes toward war, but it’s not the most interesting movie in itself that McCay ever did.
Director: Winsor McCay
Starring: Winsor McCay
Run Time: 12 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).