Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Filming the Final Voyage of RMS "Lusitania" (USA, 1915)

On May 1, 1915, an American cameraman captured the final departure of the RMS Lusitania, the British ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool, England. Of the more than 1,900 passengers and crew members on board, more than 1,100 perished, including over 120 Americans. This unique footage is now at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

RMS Lusitania leaving New York. Scene from Hearst Selig News Pictorial No. 38, released on May 12, 1915. Copied from Motography, 22 May 1915

The original footage comes from a contemporary American news film and shows passengers arriving at the dock and going aboard the ship. The Lusitania's flag is raised. Passengers, including author Elbert Hubbard, pose at the ship's rail. The film also has an interesting scene showing Captain Turner watching the Lusitania's departure. You can see him on film in a very short flash, looking at the camera, perhaps a little startled, when he suddenly notices that he is being covered by a movie man located on the roof of Pier 54, just slightly above him. The ship then turns toward open water and proceeds toward the North Atlantic. Six days later the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine on this fatal voyage.

Historical Value

This unique newsreel film has been preserved because it was edited into a compilation movie by the U.S. Signal Corps in the 1930s as part of a film series on the First World War. Its historical value is undisputed. The film has an intertitle mentioning the approval by the Pennsylvania Board of Censors, so it clearly was released in the United States. But there are no references to a production company. Both Pathé and the Hearst-Selig newsreel organization at the time claimed to have produced original footage showing the Lusitania's last departure. These films may have been used later on, without the original intertitles. But it seems more likely this film was an independent release.

Scene from the Lusitania film (1915)

The trade paper Moving Picture World in its issue of May 29, 1915, has two very interesting references to a "special film" on the Lusitania's final departure which was sold on a state-rights basis and that was booked in film theaters across the country. Around May 10, 1915, for instance the film was shown in Detroit and in Kentucky. In addition, the records of the Pennsylvania State Board show there were two independent films that were censored at this time by this State Board: The Lusitania produced by Warner, distributed by Crescent, 1 reel, approved 5/20/15, and The Lusitania, produced by an unknown company, distributed by Electric, 1 reel, approved 5/17/15.  "Warner" may refer to the Warner Brothers, who were already in the movie business in Pennsylvania during the 1910s. In short, the film print at the National Archives appears to be a copy of one of these independent releases, which would also explain why there are no references to a regular newsreel company.

There is some debate whether this film actually shows the last voyage of the Lusitania, but Eric Sauder in this weblog on the history of the Lusitania presents a very strong argument in favor of this:

""Next to be considered is the well-known film footage which shows Lusitania backing away from Pier 54 in New York that purports to be her 'final departure.' Because of changes in the lifeboat arrangement and various structural alterations made to Lusitania after August of 1914, there can be no doubt that the film footage is from her last few months of service. We also know from existing evidence that it could not have been taken between August and November, 1914. The film clearly shows a light-painted superstructure and not the dark 'war grey' that is plainly seen in the Illustrated London News photos.  

Since the film must have been taken after November, 1914, a closer examination reveals clues that narrow down the date even further. For example, noting the water level against the pilings under Pier 56, opposite the cameraman, it is definitely very near high tide. A quick check of the tide charts published in The New York Times each day tells us that for Lusitania's monthly sailings between December, 1914, and May, 1915, it was near high tide only twice -- April and May. The December, January, February, and March sailings were closer to low tide.

Is it the last voyage? Can't say for sure, but there's a 50/50 chance. I'd sure like to think it is, though...."

Here is this news film, as shown by C-SPAN3 on American History TV.



  1. The German Government placed ads in newspapers of the day warning that Lusitania was fair game for its u-boats, and that passengers traveled at their own risk on this ship. If the Kaiser thought that warning would avoid a public relations disaster he was mistaken.

  2. The gentleman waving at the camera is identified as Elbert Hubbard. But he is definitely not Elbert Hubbard.

  3. It's definitely Capt. Turner on the docking bridge. I think it is May 1, 1915.

  4. You can plainly see Captain Turner on the Bridge Wing. This footage is from May 1, 1915