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America had entered the war by the time Winsor McCay released this
film. The sinking of the Lusitania, which carried munitions as well,
swayed American sentiment, but not until Germany retracted its
guarantee of not repeating the tragedy, among other issues of course,
did the US ally. McCay's masterpiece was surely as worthy propaganda as
posters, as there was still fight to last a few more months.
By 1918, the celluloid animation process had been invented. John Fitzsimmons and Apthorp Adams providing such as the waves with less monotony to the task, and McCay is supposed still to have created some 25,000 drawings for the production. As he had done with previous shorts, McCay produced a live-action introduction promoting his dedication and hard work. His last film, "Gertie the Dinosaur", drawn on rice paper before the advent of cel animation, was the most accomplished work of animation to date. Yet, with a cliché not to be used lightly, "The Sinking of the Lusitania" was ahead of its time--years before the assembly lines of animation studios would attain such splendor. Where Gertie was a likable, coy cartoon--one of the first personated characters in animation, this short is a moving tragedy transcending to likeness re live-action.
It likens a subjective docudrama styled as a propaganda newsreel. It contains shots impossible to have covered, impossible to have recreated in a live-action film as of then, although probably thought impossible to create in animation until McCay did it. The framing and positioning is apt, the detail meticulous. There was little need for me to screen this film again before writing this comment; images of the ocean liner steaming past the Statue of Liberty, floral smoke arising from the torpedo hits, rhapsodic falling bodies, bobbing heads and the isolated sinking in the final shot to punctuate the event, I'll always remember.
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)
*** (out of 4)
This WWI propaganda piece is from Winsor McCay, the famed animator who decided to use his skills and so something quite different. This film documents the German attack on the Lusitania ship, which was carrying 2000 people when it was hit by a couple torpedoes and sank fifteen-minutes later. 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.
I first became aware of Windsor McCay when years ago I read those
surreal dream comics he did in the first decade of the 20th Century
"Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend" and "The Adventures of Little Nemo in
Slumberland". I never saw anything quite like his art work (for that
time - it was the age of "Mutt and Jeff" and "The Katzenjammer Kids".
They just were amazing to me. Then I learned that he was the first
major American cartoonist who tried his hand at motion picture
cartoons. I saw part of his "prehistoric" joke, GERTIE THE DINOSAUR, in
some television shows - but only part.
I had heard of his twelve minute long cartoon of the sinking of the R.M.S. Lusitania, but had no real knowledge of it. Then, last Friday, I finally saw it on the internet. As a meticulously drawn cartoon of that sad, sea atrocity of May 7, 1915 it is remarkable. As has been said on this thread before by others, when the ship is sinking we see little figures jumping off the ship and drowning in the ocean. Hideous in reality, that McCay did it shows great care in trying to seem accurate. He even shows that one of the smokestacks of the ship had fallen in the attack. McCay must have studied survivor's reports. Only one major fact he got wrong - but understandably so. He insists that there were two torpedoes fired by the U-Boat. Walter Schweiger's notebooks survived, and he insisted he only fired once. Today it is believed a second explosion occurred from either a boiler being hit, or coal dust exploding, or (this has been somewhat discredited) hidden explosives being taken to Europe for the war effort being blown up. Whatever it was, it probably blew out the side of the boat and caused the ship to sink in 18 minutes (not quite the 15 minutes McCay mentions in the cartoon).
It was meant for war propaganda - part of President Wilson's propaganda campaign under newspaperman George Creel, which made all Germans look anti-human. Today there would be a more balanced approach to the story - a tragedy of three governments (Britain, Germany, and the United States) who managed to bungle matters so that 1,198 people (124 of them Americans) died by drowning or freezing or injuries from the explosions.
The real tragedy is show by photos that are superimposed of some celebrities who were lost. Most are forgotten now, but were major figures in 1915. Alfred Vanderbilt, of the great railroad family, is shown. So is Charles Frohman, the theatrical producer of plays by men like Clyde Fitch and James Barrie (including PETER PAN - in the recent film about Barrie Frohman was played by Dustin Hoffman). Also the dramatist Charles Klein (who did the libretto for Sousa's best operetta EL CAPITAN), and the editor and writer Elbert Hubbard (who wrote THE MESSAGE TO GARCIA). It is an interesting aspect that these real photos are used, but drawing the figures might have seen somewhat sacrilegious towards these famous dead people.
Unless a film about the sinking is done by James Cameron as a follow-up to TITANIC, this is the closest we will ever get to a film on the loss of the "Lucy". That is, unless one thing turns up. If you read A.A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling's book, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE LUSITANIA, they mention that a newspaper cameraman was on the ship who actually took motion pictures of the panic and the destruction as it went under. He said they'd be the greatest pictures ever taken.
This idiot was lost in the disaster and his camera was never found. But was he wrong? Movies of the sinking of the "Andrea Doria" are still shown and one photo of it going under won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographer (who shot from a plane). Similarly, in 1928, the S.S. Vestris sank in a storm off the Virginia Capes with the loss of 130 people. A photo of the fear crazed passengers trying to stand on the crazy slanted deck of the "Vestris" was taken, survived, and was published. It too won the Pulitzer Prize for best news photography. Maybe, if the idiot and his camera, or just his camera, survived he would be honored today as a pioneer in photographic journalism. Apparently it didn't, but we do have McCay's excellent, fairly realistic cartoon to look at instead.
Although Winsor McCay is primarily known for such whimsical flights of fantasy as "Gertie the Dinosaur" and the comic strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland", this recreation of the great ocean-liner tragedy is just as remarkable. Painstakingly realistic, the graphic detail and fluidity of motion in this cartoon are far ahead of their time. This was actually the first film to use cel animation, as the amount of detail McCay envisioned would have made drawing each picture individually near impossible. In fact, you really have to look closely at the human figures to tell that it isn't actual live footage. The torpedoes striking the hull, the subsequent explosions, the lifeboats and ropes flying over the sides, the passengers jumping overboard, the attempts at rescue, and the tragic fates of those unfortunates adrift in the ocean are all wonderfully and harrowingly realised. That the quality of this film isn't in the greatest condition anymore (at least the print of it I saw wasn't) somehow only makes it feel even more authentic. The final shot packs an emotional wallop infinitely greater than anything in Cameron's TITANIC.
AN OFTEN HELD and widely spread attitude concerning animation is that
it is kids' stuff and not proper fare for we 'sophisticated' adults.
All work in this film discipline are somehow lumped into the not so
flatteringly used term of "Cartoons." Just check how they are
invariably classified as being 'Children's'.
WE MUST CONFESS that we succumbed to some of this propaganda; which would appear to be very difficult to resist. When we add to that the widely held notion that all of today's pictures are superior to any from "the old days." These are falsehoods that would be easily put to rest if only one would view some of the early animation work of pioneers in the genre; whose names are unknown to most.
GOING STRAIGHT TO the top of the list and the head of the class is one Winsor McCay. Mr. McCay was already an outstanding draftsman and true artist; who had already been well known for his comic strip, LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND, which had run for years; being syndicated to many newspapers in both the United States and throughout the world.
THE METHOD USED by McCay made use of many thousands more drawings than would have been required only a few years later. This was due to the invention of clear plastic cells; which would be alternated sequentially over a single background. The painting of characters, vehicles, animals, etc. on the cell and then photographed over the background eliminated possibly as much as 60% of the drawing required.
BUT IT IS this quality of rendering the scenes that are so lifelike that gives such a dramatic and moving feel to this short. There needn't have been more length to the story telling, when the actual sinking of the Lusitania was completed in about 15 minutes!
WE FOUND THIS "cartoon" to be eerily haunting, even disturbing. In particular, we are referring to the depiction of the great ship sinking, one end going down with the other high in the air. All during this time, McCay has given us the sight of many people (in long shot); who are helplessly and desperately jumping many feet off of the ship to an equally unsure fate in the North Atlantic.
WHEN WE SCREENED this short, we were instantly put in the same mental state we all had when viewing those poor, helpless murdered individuals who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001.
NOW YOU SEE what we mean about seeing this being a highly dramatic experience! DO YOU STILL call them "cartoons?"
From Winsor McCay, the revolutionary animation pioneer and director of the charming classic "Gertie the Dinosaur" comes a much darker animated tale. This film recounts the tragic striking and sinking of the Lusitania which took away over 1000 lives. This film is highly respectful in execution, and it certainly isn't what you would expect from McCay, who normally crafted extremely funny and enjoyable animations rather than heartbreaking dramas. But, although its execution is much different than any other silent drama on the subject could be, it is highly effective and powerful, not to mention well made! The animation is wonderfully done, and doesn't look too "cartoony" for the depressing subject matter. McCay creates haunting and slightly propagandic images with this invention, images that wouldn't have been successfully captured on a 1918 movie set.
McCay's animation is hypnotic and the realism is shocking. It's all on the same horizontal plane of action, but that makes it so strong and potent to look at, since the point of view doesn't change too much, except to show people falling off the boat. The intertitles don't help so much; they break up the flow of the images and even down to seeing the names and faces and bios on certain 'famous' people of the period (major figures I'm sure but still a distraction), and I wanted to get more Windsor McKay drawings. Showing his process was fascinating too, as the short begins with McKay getting his drawing-marching orders, and you see how he starts with the water, and then lays in everything else. The most shocking part comes with those little figures falling off the ship in droves, but each one has enough detail that they can be distinguished as human beings.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Sinking of the Lusitania" is a black-and-white silent film from 1918, so it will have its 100th anniversary in two years from now. The writer and director is Winsor McCay and if you know a bit about film history, then you will know that he one of the pioneers when it comes to animation. As groundbreaking as some of his early works may have been, this one here is where he really shines because it is about a very important event that happened during World War I, namely the sinking of the majestic ship Lusitania by the German forces. This film does not only use animation to bring across his message, it is also very informative including intertitles that describe what happened or also lists some famous names that drowned because of the sinking. Of course, there is certainly some fiction in this film as well, but I still believe it is very much worth watching and for me it is a contender for McCay's best work. I do recommend the watch.
Winsor McCay's 1918 cartoon "The Sinking of the Lusitania" was designed
to make the US population enter World War I. Every war's gotta have a
pretext. The world has spent the past year remembering the global
conflict, and the Lusitania got sunk 100 years ago this month. Most
important is that World War I set the stage for much of what happened
during the 20th century. In addition to the millions of people lost to
the war, the Turkish army massacred almost half of Armenia's
population. The terrible conditions in Russia combined with
conscription led to the 1917 revolution. The Versailles Negotiations
led to the Third Reich (caused by the reparations imposed on Germany)
and the Vietnam War (Woodrow Wilson's refusal to listen to a young Ho
Chi Minh). And then there's the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which led to the
current mess in the Middle East.
Anyway, it's a well done cartoon. It's always neat to see the relics of early cinema, and especially the animation. Worth seeing, understanding that it's propaganda cartoon.
Animation historians must view this film immediately, but I suppose if you can find one McCay cartoon you can find them all - they're compiled on the 'Animation Legend' video and DVD. 'Lusitania' is the film where McCay tries to escape the caricatural confines of the animated picture to produce a serious and moving film, and damn, he succeeds. The meticulous care which he put into the thousands of drawings necessary for this short cartoon meant that by the time it was finished, it was barely topical and WWI was over, leaving its calls for vengeance somewhat stranded. However, as a study of technique it is perhaps unsurpassed. McCay's animation has a dimensionality which is worlds apart from the character animation of Koko the Klown or Felix the Cat, perhaps a deliberate differentiation from such gentle entertainments. The grim monochrome images of the Lusitania's stern raised in the air while hundreds of people leap to their deaths while remind most audiences of shots from James Cameron's 'Titanic'. While the barely-concealed rage and maudlin tributes to the famous noblemen who died in the sinking (as opposed the penniless plebs who we can afford to forget) now appear unpalatably heavy-handed, the elegant curls of smoke from the stricken vessel are simply powerful cinematic touches which seal McCay's reputation as one of the great film artists of the silent era. If only he, and not Disney, had become the template for the future of American animation...
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