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.
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.