On May 7, 1915, the British passenger ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a torpedo launched by a German U-boat and sank off the Irish coast. Of its 1,962 passengers and crew, only 764 survived. This traumatic event propelled the United States into World War I, and served as a benchmark of outrage that motivated everyone from statesmen to soldiers to go Over There.
‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’
Dir: Winsor McKay
Scr: Winsor McKay
Premiere: July 20, 1918
In years since, the incident has become more ambiguous. The construction of the ship in 1904 was financed by the British Admiralty, it was given powerful engines and the capacity to be converted to war use. The British government has been faulted by several historians for allowing the shipment of a substantial amount of munitions— 4,200 crates of rifle ammunition, 51 tons of shrapnel shells, and more — in the Lusitania’s hold, which made it a legitimate target in German eyes caused a second explosion that doomed the ship. It is asserted by a few that that the British government connived to see the Lusitania sunk, precisely to lure the U.S. into the war.
But at the time, it was a genuine shock. It colored a Preparedness militancy movement that was encouraged by the popular press. It swayed the American public, which went from a majority for neutrality in 1914 to one for declaring war only three years later, on April 6, 1917. American idealism was engaged. This was the war to end all wars, which would make the world safe for democracy.
It touched people, one of whom as the cartoonist and pioneer animator Winsor McCay. He was already well-known as the creator of iconic characters such as “Little Nemo in Slumberland” and “Gertie the Dinosaur.” He, with his assistants John Fitzsimmons and Apthorp ‘Ap’ Adams began the laborious hand-work of drawing and photographing the 25,000 images that make up this 12-minute narrative, advertised as “Winsor McCay’s penpicture of the blackest crime of all history”.
As the first dramatic animated film, it’s a hauntingly sublime account of the facts as they were known at the time. Simultaneously, it’s inevitably a piece of propaganda, “a historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity.”
As we have seen before in McCay’s films, he is very open and inclusive about his process, the sheer magnitude of which at the least makes it memorable. The painstaking work of drawing one animation cel after another must have been excruciating. (For some shots, McCay figured out how to make a set of repeated-cycle background drawings against which he would draw objects in movement.) We see McCay at his desk, as a “Mr. Beach” gives the details of the sinking. We see his office, with stacks of paper and six assistants (none of whom are Fitzsimmons or Adams). McCay’s ambitious attempt to render full animation as a kind of documentary is treated almost as a stunt or magic trick.
The film proper begins, and we see the Lusitania’s four funnels and the distinctive, rakish set to the bow. It steams past the Statue of Liberty as a curtain is drawn across the scene.
A title reads: “Germany, which had already benumbed the world with its wholesale killing, then sent its instrument of crime to perform a more treacherous and cowardly offense.” Against ironically beautiful renderings of sea and sky, the submarine looms into view had-on, then we see it surface in profile. It is so well-drafted it almost looks rotoscoped
We watch the intersecting trajectories of the liner and the submarine. Two fish do a double take, then swim out of the way as the torpedo approaches the ship’s hull. We see the explosion, the scattering of debris, gouts of smoke churning up into the sky. It’s all very compelling. The smoke finally obscures the screen . . .
Then we are given a list of “men of world wide prominence” who were killed – writer Elbert Hubbard, playwright Charles Klein, tycoon Alfred G. Vanderbuilt, producer Charles Frohman. The smoke lifts again . . . “Germany, once a great and powerful nation, had done a dastardly deed in a dastardly way.” A woman in the waves, as in the background overloaded lifeboats descend. A swamped boat floats into view.
The “second torpedo” explosion is shown, making the Germans’ actions seem all more despicable. The ship heels over to starboard and begins to sink by the bow. Suddenly, hair-raisingly we can see small figures leaping, falling into the water, and it’s visceral like 9/11, and I can smell what Ground Zero smelled like a week after that attack. Then it becomes easier to imagine the feelings that prompted McCay to make this picture.
The morbid fascination that disasters inspire is at work here, in the masochistic fascination with the agonies of death and destruction, the insistence on martyrhood, the only way to make sense of it. “No warning was given – no mercy was shown,” says the title. “The babe that clung to his mother’s breast cried out to the world – TO AVENGE the most violent cruelty that was ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and innocent people.”
Throughout, McCay’s style is dark and severe. The looming hulls, the smoke that has a life of its own, everything in the film has a sinister cast, miles away from McCay’s usual sunny fantasies. Just to drive the message home, we see finally a mother and baby sink to their deaths beneath the waves. The title blares, “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! – AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”
Unfortunately, it took McCay more than three years to complete the 12-minute project. The U.S. was well into the war by the time the film debuted on July 20, 1918; the conflict would end on November 11.
Historical hindsight is what it is; emotional arguments are the strongest. Whatever else it was, the sinking of the Lusitania was a tragedy. In terms of film, it pushed the boundaries of what could be done, and what could be pictured, outward. In the words of McCay biographer John Canemaker, “. . . the film was a milestone in the demonstration of the alternatives available to the creative animation filmmaker.”
The National Film Registry Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order.