Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Still from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' featuring people abandoning the capsizing steamerMcCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer ‘The Lusitania’ by a German submarine in May 1915.

Like McCay’s earlier films, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ starts with some live action footage of the artist at work, helped by one Mr. Beach who provides McCay with the details on the sinking. Yet, this live action introduction is brief, and soon we cut to the real event.

The action depicted is explained by the title cards, who tell us when and how the ship was hit by two torpedoes fired from a German U-boat. The film also tells us about the number of passengers who perished, and singles out four of them. The tone of the title cards is agitated, and angry, pointing to Germany as a cruel and merciless enemy, and ending ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“. This message no doubt was rather welcome in a time in which the United States joined the war effort.

McCay’s animation is of a startling realism: the rolling waves, the steamer and U-boat moving in perspective, the explosions and smoke are totally convincing, and at the same time retain their graphic quality. The impact of the images is greatly enhanced by the use of cels (‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania” is the first McCay film to do so), and lovely background art of ocean skies. Despite the fine animation, the action is on the slow side, with people sometimes falling in slow motion into the sea. Yet, the slowness adds to the terrifying experience of the cruelty depicted.

The staging is superb: McCay uses only a few ‘camera angles’, most of them possible in real life, enhancing the idea of an objective record of events. Only two shots escape the documentary style: one shot of two fish fleeing from an approaching torpedo, and a final shot of a mother with child sinking into the sea. Clearly, McCay wanted the viewer to have the feeling he was witnessing the event in real time, as if he was there. Of course, the documentary style only enhances the clear propagandistic message against Germany. The bold propaganda may not have aged very well, McCay’s images certainly have: such command of perspective, such elegance of drawing and such dramatic yet convincingly ‘realistic’ staging is still impressive, one hundred years later. ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ thus is a great example of how animation can be used in documentaries to show events that could not or have not been put on film. Strangely, this use of animation was not seen again, until the 21st century, when ‘Waltz with Bashir’ (2008) entered the cinemas.

In all, ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite the propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.

Watch ‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s fourth film
To Winsor McCay’s third film: Gertie The Dinosaur
To Winsor McCay’s fifth, unfinished film: The Centaurs

‘The Sinking of the “Lusitania”‘ is available on the DVD ‘Winsor McCay the Master Edition’

Advertisements