13. The Sinking of the Lusitania – Winsor McCay

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SUMMARY: An animated documentary on the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat, an act that killed 1,198 people.

WHY IT’S HERE: ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ was a pet project for Winsor McCay, markedly different from his previous work. A far cry from the comic lightness of ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’, ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ was the first animated documentary, a piece of propoganda that was nearly two years in the making. The result is a startling work, presenting the sinking of the ship in unprecedentedly realistic animation, interspersed with passionately propogandist intertitles that speak of how strongly McCay had been affected by the event.

At the time of the actual sinking of the Lusitania three years earlier, McCay was working for newspaperman William Randolph Hearst (famously the chief inspiration for Orson Welles’ masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’). The event enraged McCay but Hearst wanted to play down war stories as he was opposed to America joining the hostilities. Forced to illustrate anti-war and anti-British cartoons in his day job, McCay self-financed this film in his spare time. Unfortunately, the result was not a commercial success. Although it may be McCay’s most visually remarkable short, its tragic subject matter and heavy-handed propoganda did not have the same entertainment value as McCay’s fantastical depictions of dinosaurs and mosquitos. Just three years later Hearst leaned on McCay to give up animation in favour of putting more time into his newspaper illustrations. McCay’s films between ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ and this enforced retirement returned to more crowd-pleasing topics but never quite improved on the level of technical excellence present in this film.

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