Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania

the_lusitania_at_end_of_record_voyage_1907_lc-usz62-649561A news story caught my ear this morning: you know how it is when you’re waking up, making breakfast and reading a newspaper with the TV on at the same time? Well, since I didn’t catch the details of the story, I went online to find confirmation that divers have definitively settled the question about the Lusitania’s cargo of ammunition, and this reminded me of one of my all-time favourite films. To explain – the Lusitania was a passenger liner torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk on 7th May 1915, with the loss of 1,198 lives. It was widely believed to have been a turning point in the First World War, generating the kind of outrage that would eventually draw the Americans into the fight by 1917; that’s a delayed reaction, but the sinking of the largest transatlantic liner in existence was a key tool in the propaganda drive to get the US to help out in Europe. There was even a story spread that German schoolchildren had been given a holiday to celebrate the glorious sinking, though this was highly improbable. But I was surprised that there was still a controversy over the contents of the ship’s hold. After a little reading around the subject some years ago, I thought it was settled enough that I could state matter-of-factly in my PhD thesis that the ship had been used to transport guns n’ ammo to Europe. Perhaps I should have made it clear that there had been no categorical agreement on the matter, or at least that there was an argument about it (here endeth the lesson about accurately representing a range of views on any given topic when conducting research).
lusitania_sunk_8_may_1915-scaled-1000Why was I writing about this in a thesis about special effects? My first awareness of the Lusitania disaster came, like everything else worth knowing, from a cartoon. Winsor McCay‘s The Sinking of the Lusitania remains on of the most astonishing pieces of animation you’re ever likely to see; I came across it while writing about early film representations of dinosaurs, and looking up McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. I’d recommend the DVD of McCay’s complete (surviving) works, but you can watch a lo-res version at YouTube if you want an inkling of what I’m talking about:

lusitania_warningThe question over the contents of the ship’s hold is a crucial one. If it was carrying  ammunition, i.e. contraband, it would have become a “legitimate” target for German U-boats. The German embassy had issued a warning that the Lusitania was risking destruction by crossing into British waters while a state of war existed between Britain and Germany (see image, left). It would also explain why, after being struck by a single torpedo,  the Lusitania suffered two unusually large explosions and sank within eighteen minutes, leaving little time to evacuate. As noted by Kapitän-leutnant Schwieger in his log aboard U20, the attacking vessel, “Shot hits starboard side right behind bridge. An unusually heavy detonation follows with a strong explosion cloud…” Reported in the UK and America as an unprovoked attack on civilians to no strategic end, the sinking of the Lusitania provoked outrage and became a key reference point for demonstrating the primitive brutality of the German military. Representations of the Lusitania disaster, which was not captured on film or in photographs, became vital tools in the fight to keep the public incensed enough to keep supporting the war effort.

McCay (1867-1934) started work drawing twenty-five cent portraits of customers at the Wonderland Dime Museum in Detroit, before leaving Michigan in Chicago in 1889 to work for a printer. By 1891 he was working at another local dime museum in Cincinnati. In 1899 he began submitting drawings to ‘Life’ magazine, and his subsequent publications in this humorous journal led him to work for the New York Herald in 1903. His first successful comic strip, “Little Sammy Sneeze” appeared in the Herald from 24th July 1904 to 9th December 1906. “The Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” ran from 10th September 1904 to 25th June 1911; “A Pilgrim’s Progress” from 26th June 1905 to 18th December 1910; “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, perhaps his greatest achievement in cartooning, began 15th October 1905. In June 1906, McCay gave his first show as a “chalk-talk” performance cartoonist, where he would engage the audience with lightning sketches.By 1908, “Little Nemo” had been produced as a Broadway musical and McCay was in demand as a performer. His act included a piece where he drew the seven ages of Man, ageing a character with a series of key stage drawings at the approximate rate of one new drawing every thirty seconds. His first film was an adaptation of “Little Nemo”, comprised of four thousand drawings, which he followed with “How a Mosquito Operates“, which contained six thousand. On 11th July 1911 McCay quit the Herald when they forbade him from travelling to Europe to perform there, and he went to work for William Randolph Hearst The American, where “Little Nemo” was restarted as “In the Land of Wonderful Dreams” (the Herald still owned the original title). In 1914, at the time of the release of Gertie the Dinosaur, Hearst made McCay sign a contract forbidding him from performing outside New York City. In 1924 he left Hearst to return to the Herald-Tribune, as it had come to be called, but after two more years of “Little Nemo” he returned to The American, where he worked for Arthur Brisbane until his death in 1934.

One of my favourite aspects of McCay’s cartoon work is the way characters are given a realist dimensionality that stands in dynamic contrast to the surreal events that might actually be depicted. Take a look at this episode of Dream of the Rarebit Fiend: in every instalment, a character suffers a vivid hallucination brought on by eating cheese on toast before bed. This simple formula, always ending with the dreamer’s awakening (and invariably a pledge to stay away from late-night rarebit binges in future). Here, a man’s puppy transforms into a monstrous giant:
rarebit-fiendNotice how the dog retains a believable musculature even as it reaches impossible proportions. It defies all spatial logic, straining at the corners of the frame, but McCay endows the dog with a convincing sense of weight and presence. This enhances the comic disparity between the enormity of the hallucination and the cute insignificance of the actual pup in the final panel, and is a good indicator of McCay’s interest in commenting on reality by not abandoning its physical precepts entirely.

The same strategy carries over into his amazing exercise in cartoon characterisation, Gertie the Dinosaur, in which the viewer is treated to a demonstration of the giant creature’s physical properties. It’s unmistakeably a cartoon, with all of the flexibility that such a designation entails, but you can really see Gertie’s body working, breathing, shifting her weight around. I won’t say much more about Gertie, because I’d like to give her her own blog entry in the future:


Dream of the Rarebit Fiend featured its fair share of catastrophic imagery, as large-scale disasters could unfold form the most trivial causes; this is the comically nightmarish feeling of a collapsing universe or a sudden fall through space. Dream-of-the-Rarebit-FiendIn The Sinking of the Lusitania, McCay continued to ground his animation within a realist framework, but in this case he wants to efface the superreal aspects of the medium as much as possible. He wants his film to stand as a dramatic reconstruction of the sinking, and he takes great care over the details of the ships massive weight being penetrated by an explosive force that almost overwhelms the image itself, but it never slides into abstraction: the aim is to stop the ship looking “cartoony”, and to convey a sense of palpable destruction.
lusitaniaAs you can see in this image of one of McCay’s cels from the original film (he’s helpfully signed it for us!), even though the shot could have been presented from any angle, at any distance, the artist has designed the scene from the position of a distant observer. This allows the whole ship to be held in the frame, of course, emphasising the scale of the disaster (and gives a sense of proportion to those crowds of tiny victims stranded on the decks), but it also aligns this filmic representation with similar presentations from the media at the time. See, for instance Thomas Hemy’s 1915 (?) depiction of the disaster:
lusitania1Here are some other images that maintain that same diagonal framing of the sinking ship to stress its huge size and give it a horribly vertiginous angle as it keels over in the water. This propaganda poster is especially striking and self-explanatory:


We might think of an animated documentary as a paradox. We expect documentary footage to have been recorded at the time of the events depicted, giving the film a strong indexical association with the events and branding it with a mark of authenticity – the camera stands in for us as an eyewitness, and we lend it a level of credence accordingly. James Latham attributes the peculiar fascination of McCay’s film to its combination of documentary and fantastic animated elements:

What makes The Sinking of the Lusitania among the more interesting, accomplished, and unique films of its time is its hybrid form as an artful document. Unlike most documentaries it is animated, and unlike most animated cartoons it is not a comedy. And unlike many propaganda films of the time, its production values are exceptional, even noteworthy as one of the earliest films to use cel animation. … A powerful document with images drawn and edited to resemble a newsreel, McCay’s animated film simultaneously informs, horrifies, and possibly entertains audiences with its spectacle. A self-described ‘historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity,’ the film depicts the ship being torpedoed, engulfed in flames and explosions, and sinking as passengers seek lifeboats and fall overboard to their deaths. (James Latham, in Keil & Singer [eds.] American Cinema of the 1910s. Rutgers UP, 2009, p. 218)

Without the shortcut of photographic evidence, McCay’s film has to build up its status as a historical document by other means. Principally, the film achieves its power through its meticulous reconstruction of the disaster. The opening live action sequence shows McCay researching the events and settling down to begin work. Emphasis on the facts of production gives the film an extra emotional dimension: the attention to detail is tacitly equated with historical accuracy, an attempt to give the film a level of veracity which would not normally be attributable to a cartoon film. After the adoption of cel animation as an industry standard, animation could be easily broken up into a series of production line tasks; partly as a result of this, animation would become associated with children’s entertainment and programme filler that could be easily produced along formulaic lines with simple cartoon figures.In his earlier short film, How a Mosquito Operates, McCay used cycles of drawings so that he could re-use some of his drawings for repetitive actions, such as the proboscis of the insect repeatedly penetrating a man’s neck:
mccay-mosquito9aFor The Sinking of the Lusitania, the extreme diligence required for completing the animation becomes a sign of the artist’s sincere passion for the subject, as if it becomes more truthful by having been hand-crafted and stripped of all extraneous information: by painstakingly transferring his research onto the screen, we are expected to presume that only the facts that have passed through that distillation process will be contained in the finished work. He doesn’t use labour-saving devices like the cycled drawings for Lusitania. The spectator has to feel the weight of the labour involved, and from it infer the sincerity of McCay’s emotional commitment to the war effort.
mccay-lusitania1Unfortunately, this also meant that the film was not ready for release until 20th July 1918, months before the end of the First World War, and too late to play a role in instigating retaliation. But it remains an extraordinary piece of propaganda. The final image is of a woman clutching a baby, sinking below the waves, fading into the abstract play of bubbles onscreen: the film’s simplest drawing may be its most powerful. This shot is drawn from Fred Spears’ famous “Enlist” propaganda poster of 1915-16:
The use of women in war propaganda was a common tactic, as Pearl James suggests:

Many posters represent the violence of war through the visual metaphor of a raped, mutilated, or murdered woman. What could be more different from “timeless,” classical figures? Yet the victimized woman is also very much a fantastic construction with a complex appeal, despite the attestations of reality that frequently accompany these depictions. Certainly, there were female casualties. Yet posters that depict female victims depend not on factual evidence but upon sexual fantasy and gender (and in some cases racial) stereotypes.  (Pearl James, Picture This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture. Nebraska UP, 2009, p. 283)

Like most documentaries, the partiality of The Sinking of the Lusitania cannot be concealed by the codes of authenticity or objectivity. However carefully he carries out his drawings, McCay‘s film cannot prove that the ship was torpedoed twice. The facts continue to evade the representation. It is a wrongheaded and reactionary movie (it has some of the quaintness we tend to see in shockingly brazen war propaganda from bygone days, and a little bit of the horror), but it marks a point when animation seemed to have an expressive potential limited only by the time and energy of its artists, and when it could pose important questions about the veracity of images and the status of documentary.

7 thoughts on “Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania

  1. Pingback: The Sinking of the Lusitania

  2. Hello,
    First off, I would like to thank you for your interesting historical documentation of the Lusitania. I was wondering if you know where I can buy an original production cel from Wnsor McCay’s Sinking of the Lusitania? I am working on an animation exhibition for a museum and would like to find some pieces from Lusitania. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Continuous Performance: “She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter” | Northwest Chicago Film Society

  4. My wife’s mother has recently passed and her great grand father Nicholas Quirk was a dear friend of Mr Windsor McCay. We are in possession of original signed cells letters glass plates ect.. Also many original metal and wood etchings from Mr Quirk

  5. Thank you for this very helpful analysis of the graphics in Sinking of the Lusitania. I am trying to write in the context of World War I propaganda imagery and am wondering if McCay drew an editorial cartoon pertaining to the sinking closer to the time it happened (May 7, 1915). Have you come across anything about this?

    • Hi, Seth. I’m glad you liked the post. I haven’t come across any editorial cartoons by McCay about the Lusitania – that would be an interesting find! Have you tried John Canemaker’s biography? The internet archive also has a lot of old newspapers and periodicals of the time.

  6. Thank you for the wonderful information regarding this extraordinary work. I have tried to find out about the music that was used in this film. Do you have any information that would help me locate it?

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