Winsor McCay Animates the Sinking of the Lusitania in a Beautiful Propaganda Film (1918)

You might know Win­sor McCay (1867? ‑1934) for the gor­geous­ly sur­re­al Lit­tle Nemo com­ic strip or for his ear­ly ani­mat­ed short Ger­tie the Dinosaur (1914). But did you know that he also cre­at­ed some of the ear­li­est exam­ples of ani­mat­ed pro­pa­gan­da ever?

On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusi­ta­nia was just off the coast of Ire­land, head­ing towards its des­ti­na­tion of Liv­er­pool, when a Ger­man U‑boat attacked the ship with­out warn­ing. Eigh­teen min­utes after two tor­pe­does slammed into the ship, it was under water. 1,198 died. The furor over the inci­dent even­tu­al­ly lead to the Unit­ed States enter­ing WWI.

At the time of the sink­ing, McCay was employed by William Ran­dolph Hearst as an edi­to­r­i­al car­toon­ist. Though McCay was incensed by the attack, Hearst was an iso­la­tion­ist and demand­ed that he draw anti-war car­toons. This grat­ed on the artist more and more until final­ly he decid­ed to fol­low up on his huge­ly suc­cess­ful Ger­tie the Dinosaur by mak­ing The Sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia (1918), which you can see above.

The movie took two years of painstak­ing effort to make and con­sist­ed of over 25,000 draw­ings — all done by hand and most done by McCay him­self dur­ing his free time after work.

Com­pared to oth­er ani­ma­tion done around this time, the film is both stark and seri­ous, lend­ing it the air of a doc­u­men­tary. The piece, which isn’t much short­er than the actu­al time it took for the Lusi­ta­nia to sink, gives a blow-by-blow account of the attack. Though the inci­dent is depict­ed large­ly from afar, as if from a cam­era on anoth­er ship, McCay doesn’t shy away from show­ing some real­ly gut-wrench­ing moments of the tragedy up close. At one point, there is a shot of a des­per­ate moth­er try­ing to keep her baby above the waves. At anoth­er point, dozens of peo­ple are seen bob­bing in the chop­py seas like drift­wood.

And, just in case you haven’t quite grasped the thrust of the film, McCay includes some inter­ti­tles, which are, even by the stan­dards of war pro­pa­gan­da, pret­ty heavy-hand­ed.

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.


The man who fired the shot was dec­o­rat­ed for it by the Kaiser! – AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.

The curi­ous thing about the movie, con­sid­er­ing its sub­ject mat­ter, is how beau­ti­ful it is. Just look at the styl­ized lines of the ocean, the baroque arabesques of the smoke com­ing off the ship’s smoke­stacks, the ele­gant use of neg­a­tive space. Each and every cel of the movie is wor­thy of get­ting framed. How many war pro­pa­gan­da movies can you same that about?

You can find The Sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia in the Ani­ma­tion sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 675 Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ger­tie the Dinosaur: The Moth­er of all Car­toon Char­ac­ters

Vis­it the World of Lit­tle Nemo Artist Win­sor McCay: Three Clas­sic Ani­ma­tions and a Google Doo­dle

Ear­ly Exper­i­ments in Col­or Film (1895–1935)

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons are Made

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.