Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: RMS Lusitania

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

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Winsor McCay

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).


Best Visual Effects 1917

Entertainment often means trickery. Even on stage, various “effects” are used to simulate real-world or fantastic conditions that would be dangerous if reproduced in a theater space: cannon fire, for example, or the ghostly ship in the “The Flying Dutchman”. I’ve even read about spectacles in which building fires were simulated and fought on a large stage to celebrate the bravery of firemen.  Early filmmakers learned that the camera allows for much more convincing and spectacular effects than are safe to perform with a live audience attending, and that it also has the potential for more impressive “magical” trickery. Thus, the category of visual effects in film has become a part of how we judge them. This award considers the best of those effects each year.

In 1917, many films were using simple effects as a matter of course, but the movies I’ve nominated each showed some more innovative, or more elaborate application of them. In “Fear,” a man is haunted by his visions of a “Buddha Priest” he’s wronged. Conrad Veidt is made to appear transparent, and impervious to bullets, in this early example of a horror movie. “The Dying Swan” has a similar ghostly effect, in which the female lead is threatened by disembodied hands that reach out to strangle her, and re-appear in the scene in which she is really strangled. “The Little American” is an ambitious action film, that re-creates the sinking of the Lusitania and also shows the war-ravaged streets of a French town in the First World War. The main effects seen in the “Judex” episode, “The Fantastic Dog Pack,” are changes in tinting of the film to simulate lighting changes, and the hard work of the animal trainers in getting the eponymous “pack” to do its work. We also get underground caverns and chase scenes, handled well.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1917 are:

  1. Fear
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Little American
  4. The Fantastic Dog Pack

And the winner is…”The Little American!”

There’s a tradition in Hollywood of giving the special effects award to a movie that was spectacular, but not a critical success, and I guess I’m following that tradition here. “The Little American” was big with audiences in its day, but is not especially fondly remembered now. It’s a pretty transparent propaganda piece that relies heavily on stereotypes and emotionalism. But, it does have some pretty extravagant effects. We see the sinking of the boat from inside of a ballroom that appears to turn on its side and fill with water. It genuinely appears as though the actors could have been in danger of drowning. The devastated countryside is also effective, even if the plot at the end becomes so heavy-handed as to be almost impossible to take seriously.

May 1915

Once again, it’s time for a roundup of headlines from 100 years ago. At this point, the “war in Europe” has ramped up to where people are seeing it as a “World War.” No one is expecting a quick end, and the horrors of the trenches have become facts of life for thousands of young men. The movies are an important escape, but European film production is suffering from the economic pressures and sheer mass of manpower diverted to war-production. The United States is increasingly entrenched as the world’s major film-exporting country, as it will be for many years after the war ends.

Clara Hagen (nee Immerwahr), the first female PhD in Chemistry

Clara Hagen (nee Immerwahr), the first female PhD in Chemistry

Science: On May 2, Clara Immerwahr commits suicide. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in Chemistry and an advocate of women’s rights. She was married to Fritz Haber, another chemist, and was known to have helped him in his work. Haber was a staunch supporter of the German military, while Clara was more pacifist in outlook. Haber’s work (and, presumably, Clara’s) contributed to the gas attack in Flanders in April, 1914, and it was clear that his career would be dedicated to Chemical Warfare for years to come. This may have influenced Clara’s decision to take her life, using her husband’s service revolver, before a second planned gas attack on the Russian Front.

Literature: Canadian soldier Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae writes the poem “In Flanders Fields” on May 3. It begins with the refrain “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.” Poppies will become symbolic of Remembrance Day in Canada and other Dominion countries for at least the next 100 years.

Sports: Babe Ruth hits his first career home run, May 6. Although he is mostly remembered for his long tenure with the New York Yankees, at this time he plays for their arch-rivals, the Boston Red Sox.

Artist's conception of the sinking of RMS Lusitania

Artist’s conception of the sinking of RMS Lusitania

World War: On May 7, a German submarine sinks the RMS Lusitania with a torpedo. The ship, which was believed to be carrying military supplies to Britain, was also a commercial liner loaded with civilian passengers bound for Liverpool. Of these, 1,198 died, with 768 rescued. 128 of the dead were American citizens, and the sinking of the Lusitania became a major diplomatic dispute between the US and Germany, with American sentiment shifting increasingly toward the Allies after this point.

Accidents: On May 22, five trains collide near Quintinshill in Scotland, claiming 226 lives, mostly troops headed for the front. This remains the worst rail disaster in UK history.

Eruption of Lassen Peak.

Eruption of Lassen Peak.

Natural Disasters: In California Lassen Peak erupts, May 22, following more than a year of rumblings and several days of minor explosions. A huge plume of volcanic ash rose 30,000 feet into the air and was visible from 150 miles away.

Diplomacy: Italy declares war on Austria, May 24. By this time the Fasci d’Azione Revoluzionaria, allied with Benito Mussolini, have been agitating for war for six months.

Politics: The Liberal government of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith ends in the UK on May 17, when he arranges a coalition government with leaders of the Conservative Party. This is ultimately not enough to stop his decline in power, and he resigns in 1916. The Liberals will never hold power outside a coalition in the UK national government again.

Births: Alice Faye, May 5 (she would appear in “Hello, Frisco, Hello” and “Four Jills in a Jeep”); Orson Welles, May 6 (who went on to make “Citizen Kane” after scaring the bejeepers out of people with his radio version of “War of the Worlds”); Renee Asherson, May 19 (who was in “Henry V” with Lawrence Olivier and “Theatre of Blood” with Vincent Price).