It's another Winsor McCay animated film, but this time with a serious message. Released during World War One and meant as a cry to fire up America to oppose Germany, it's about the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania occurred on 7 May 1915.
The original sinking was a key turning point in the war. The German submarine U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania off the Irish coast, raising heated debate about whether it was a legitimate target and turning public opinion against Germany in many countries. It helped push America into joining the fray and was used throughout the rest of the war as a symbol in military recruiting campaigns of why Germany needed to be fought. 1,198 people died when the ship went down. It was a cruise liner with passengers, not a warship, although as it happened it had also been carrying rifle ammunition and other supplies.
This film is an animated reconstruction of those events. It was easily the best technical method available at the time to show what had happened, especially when your artist is Winsor McCay.
It starts like a DVD extra about the making of itself. It doesn't go nearly as far in this direction as Little Nemo, but it begins with the animators and some technical details, like drawing the sea. After that, it becomes a documentary. McCay simply relates the events that killed "1150 people" (lower than the true figure, surprisingly), through visuals and intertitles with a little ship on them. There's nothing frivolous about it. McCay knows he's telling us something terrible, although the angle he's chosen keeps us at arm's length from the full horror. We're watching the ship in full, in long shot. Humans are the size of ants, if visible at all.
It's an odd mix of styles. There are photos. The sea's been done as line art, the boat looks photo-realistic and the sky's been done in watercolours. You wouldn't expect a ship getting torpedoed to be beautiful, but just wait until you see the explosion. I'd never seen anything like it before. McCay animates paintings. Every frame is an entire picture, as always with McCay, rather than a overlaid cell as would soon become universal in the industry... and the explosion is fully painted. Amazing.
In hindsight, it's interesting as a technical exercise in stylistic juxtaposition. It's also enjoyable to look at, which is important too. I liked the fish.
It's propaganda, of course. That's its job. However it's tolerable (and sometimes amusing) because it doesn't need to strain to get the desired effect from this material. There's the odd ripe intertitle. I smiled at the bit where McCay stresses that of the 1,150 dead, 114 were Americans! Well, they're his target audience. He's making this film for a reason. Four of the dead had been famous, incidentally; I hadn't known that a Vanderbilt went down on the Lusitania.
It's good. It wasn't made for entertainment, but it's good and I enjoyed it. It's worth catching for the mish-mash of animation styles, if nothing else. It's a shame we couldn't get this guy back from the dead and doing reconstructions of lost Doctor Who stories... something about this made me wish we could see that. Well, except for the propaganda angle, obviously.
"The man who fired the shot was decorated it by the Kaiser! -- AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN."