The Lusitania passes the Statue of Liberty as she leaves New York Harbor. After some time, a German submarine is shown cutting through the waters. A torpedo is fired and hits the liner, which billows smoke that builds until it envelops the entire screen. Passengers scramble to lower lifeboats, some of which capsize in the confusion. The liner tilts from one side to the other, and passengers are tossed into the ocean.
A second blast rocks the liner, which sinks slowly into the deep as more passengers fall off its edges. The camera pans over the floating bodies, including those of a mother and her baby. After the Lusitania vanishes from sight, an intertitle declares: "The man who fired the shots was decorated by the Kaiser. And they tell us not to hate the Hun."
On May 7, 1915, a German submarine torpedoed the RMS Lusitania. 128 Americans were among the 1,198 who lost their lives. Newspapers owned by McCay's employer, William Randolph Hearst, downplayed the tragedy, as Hearst was opposed to the U.S. joining in World War I. His own papers' readers were increasingly pro-war in the aftermath of the Lusitania. McCay was as well, but was required to illustrate anti-war and anti-British editorial cartoons by editor Arthur Brisbane. In 1916, McCay rebelled against his employer's stance and decided to make the patriotic Sinking of the Lusitania in his own time.
The sinking itself was never photographed. McCay said that he gathered background details on the Lusitania from Hearst's Berlin correspondent August F. Beach, who was in London at the time of the disaster and was the first newsman at the scene. The film was the first attempt at a serious, dramatic work of animation.
Some of the following has yet to be checked along side the facts reported by August F. Beach, thus the facts in the film may have appeared factual to the audience at the time of its viewing.
This is the Warning published in over 50 American Newspapers of which the film mentions;
TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.
The warning was indeed ment to warn passangers seeking to board the Lusitania, which leads to controversy over weather or not the German Naval Command had planned to attack the vessel ahead of time. It should be made noted that the Embassy published the warning after a group of German-Americans, seeking to avoid controversy if the lusitania was attacked, brought their concerns before the Embassy its self. [Citation needed]
- Though the film claims 2,000 were aboard, the actual number was 1,958 or 1959, of those lost 128 were Americans. Which is a bit less then the 200 claimed by the film.
- U-39 was not the U-Boat that sunk the Lusitania, it was actually SM U-20.
- Walther Schwieger, Captain of U-20 noted in his personal log; ""It looks as if the ship will stay afloat only for a very short time. [I gave order to] dive to 25 metres and leave the area seawards. I couldn't have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves." however various papers at the time reported a 2nd shot, as their was an explossion reported by survivors to have happened shortly after the ship began sinking. This leads to controversy over wether or not the Lusitania was transporting ammunition to a British Arms Manufacturer in Liverpool.
- Walther Schwieger was indeed decorated, though not specifically for sinking the Lusitania. Schwieger is considered the third most sucessful Submarine Captian in world history, having sunk 46 vessels over the course of 34 missions. Walther Schwieger was awarded the Pour le Merite, as well as the Iron Cross 1st Class for his achievements.