SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA, THE (Winsor McCay, 1918, USA, 12m, BW)
Directed by Winsor McCay
Distributed by Jewel Productions
Country United States
Language Silent with English intertitles
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) is a silent animated short film by American cartoonist Winsor McCay. It is a work of propaganda re-creating the never-photographed 1915 sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania. At twelve minutes it has been called the longest work of animation at the time of its release. The film is the earliest surviving animated documentary and serious, dramatic work of animation.
In 1915 a German submarine torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania; 128 Americans were among the 1,198 dead. The event outraged McCay, but the newspapers of his employer William Randolph Hearst downplayed the event, as Hearst was opposed to the US joining World War I. McCay was required to illustrate anti-war and anti-British editorial cartoons for Hearst's papers. In 1916, McCay rebelled against his employer's stance and began work on the patriotic Sinking of the Lusitania on his own time with his own money.
The film followed McCay's earlier successes in animation: Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). McCay drew these earlier films on rice paper, onto which backgrounds had to be laboriously traced; The Sinking of the Lusitania was the first film McCay made using the new, more efficient cel technology. McCay and his assistants spent twenty-two months making the film. His subsequent animation output suffered setbacks, as the film was not as commercially successful as his earlier efforts, and Hearst put increased pressure on McCay to devote his time to editorial drawings.
The film opens with a live-action prologue in which McCay busies himself studying a picture of the Lusitania as a model for his film-in-progress. Intertitles boast of McCay as "the originator and inventor of Animated Cartoons", and of the 25,000 drawings needed to complete the film. McCay is shown working with a group of anonymous assistants on "the first record of the sinking of the Lusitania".
The liner passes the Statue of Liberty and leaves New York Harbor. After some time, a German submarine cuts through the waters and fires a torpedo at the Lusitania, which billows smoke that builds until it envelops the screen. Passengers scramble to lower lifeboats, some of which capsize in the confusion. The liner tilts from one side to the other and passengers are tossed into the ocean.
A second blast rocks the Lusitania, which sinks slowly into the deep as more passengers fall off its edges, and the ship submerges amid scenes of drowning bodies. The liner vanishes from sight, and the film closes with a mother struggling to keep her baby above the waves. An intertitle declares: "The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! And yet they tell us not to hate the Hun."
Not all animation is necessarily fantastic, and outside of a couple of very minor details (a pair of fish show a hint of anthropomorphism in their reaction to an approaching torpedo, the smoke from the smokestacks behaves in a rather snaky fashion after the ship is hit with a torpedo which, though it is visually effective, seems rather unreal), this animated reenactment of a watershed moment leading to World War I is very realistic. Unsurprisingly, the short is also a work of propaganda, and a very effective one; with a wisely chosen soundtrack, this is a very moving and tragic. McCay's animation is very impressive here; it's detailed and constantly in action. Like GERTIE THE DINOSAUR, it opens with a live-action section involving the making of the short, but it maintains a serious mood throughout.
The film clocks in at twelve-minutes and the animation is used to show what happened and then we're given actual footage talking about how evil Germany is and we also have a brief tribute to some of the men who were lost. This is a fairly interesting film on many levels but the biggest is because of all the fire and passion that McCay brings to the material. There's no doubt that this was a very personal film to him and he clearly makes his feelings known by attacking Germany on pretty much every level.
There's no question that the gloves are off as the title cards are quite damning to the actions that were done that day. The animation of the boat sinking is quite simple on one hand but I'd argue there are still some very striking moments here. I think the greatest are the shots of the ship and the smoke coming from it. The long, complete shots of the ship are quite striking in their animated form and just watch the way that the smoke comes off of it. The previously mentioned tribute shows some of the famous people that died on the ship, which was somewhat questionable and especially since none of the other victims are even mentioned and no tribute is given to them. With that said, this is still very much worth seeing just for the passion that it displays.
Regarded as one of the first animated documentaries in film history, THE SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA strikes, to the modern viewer, for the combination of its propagandistic elements around a never-photographed tragedy and the dramatic realism of animated cells produced in 1918. Scenes like the torpedo’s first impact in the Lusitania or the panic of the shipwrecked proves the laborious work of Winsor McKay (best known for directing GERTIE THE DINOSAUR), a filmmaker that nurtured, since the early years of animated movies, the notion of animation as an expression of pure artistry.
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