Dead Wake: Lusitania and the Movies

If you’ve never read anything by Erik Larson, it is high time. I recently finished his latest, “Dead Wake”, and was as thrilled by it as the other books by him that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The first, “The Devil in the White City” (film rights sold to Leonardo DiCaprio in 2010) followed the serial killer H.H. Holmes during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The second, “In the Garden of the Beasts” (film adaptation has been planned with Tom Hanks in the lead) depicted the U.S. Ambassador’s family in Berlin as they witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

I’m not the only huge fan of Larson’s work. In the clip above, Conan O’Brien has the author as a guest on his online show Serious Jibber-Jabber, the place where O’Brien can talk to people without feeling the need to “entertain” (meaning he doesn’t have to introduce a masturbating bear).

I mentioned those plans of film adaptations not only because this is a blog about movies and TV, but also because Larson has a knack for turning real-life stories from the past into incredibly exciting (and potentially cinematic) drama. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Dead Wake” also was scooped up by some Hollywood producer, although the budget for a film likely would have to be very high. Published earlier this year, the book follows the famed luxury ocean liner Lusitania on its last voyage across the Atlantic in 1915. Larson familiarizes us with many of the passengers and crew, while also introducing us to the men aboard U-20, the German submarine that would eventually sink the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing over a thousand people and contributing to America’s decision two years later to enter World War I.

In O’Brien’s interview with Larson, and in the book itself, there’s talk of a newsreel depicting Lusitania’s departure. In “Dead Wake”, Larson describes it in detail, which makes watching it in the YouTube clip above all the more intriguing. The quality is pretty good. We see passengers arrive, there’s Lusitania’s captain in one shot, and then we see the ship depart. Oddly fascinating, obviously because of what happened to the ship one week later.

The fate of the Lusitania has not really been depicted in movies, in spite of its place in history. Being overshadowed by the Titanic only three years earlier probably had something to do with it. However, the clip above shows all of The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), which is, amazingly, a partly animated silent short about the disaster. It’s the earliest surviving animated documentary. If you’ve read the book, the film is particularly fascinating. Also note that it was made at the time when people still thought that the ship was sunk by not one but two torpedoes.

It remains to be seen if we’ll ever see another movie about the sinking of the Lusitania.

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