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Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

LIKE the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, the sinking of a British liner at the hands of a German U-Boat during World War I will forever be regarded as an act of infamy. And that is exactly what BBC’s docudrama Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic sought to justify. But just how convincingly, if at all?

The facts are indisputable. In 1915, the Lusitania was the fastest, the largest and the most glamorous ocean liner in the world, regularly crossing the Atlantic between New York and Liverpool. But in May of that year, as she neared the end of an otherwise uneventful crossing, she was struck by a single torpedo from a German U-Boat.

She sank in just 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers on board, 1,198 (almost 100 of them children) perished in the icy waters of the Atlantic. The incident provoked public outrage, not only in Britain and America but around the world. It also raised a number of very awkward questions.

Was the Lusitania carrying explosives? If so, this would certainly account for the dramatic and terrifying consequences of a single torpedo hit. Was the ship deliberately sacrificed in order to bring America into the war? The government was fully aware of U-Boat activity in the area and although Captain William Turner was warned, the liner was denied a military escort. We also know for a fact that the Lusitania was carrying American civilians and that, in all likelihood, their deaths would have been seen as an attack on America. And finally, why at the ensuing enquiry, did the authorities attempt to make Captain Turner a scapegoat?

Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic presents these hypotheses as fact – and very plausible they are too – in the process, recreating events both on board the Lusitania and the U-Boat.

It’s here, the film borrows heavily from James Cameron’s Titanic though to be fair, there is only so much that can be done with a like disaster of similar proportions. However, the central characters – Professor Holborn (John Hannah), who also narrates, and schoolgirl Avis (Madeleine Garrood) – were real-life survivors who remained friends for life.

Yet scenes of Avis being lowered in a lifeboat with the Professor looking on, as well as a poor Irish family, an affluent American couple, the opulence of First Class, sweating semi-naked men hard at work in the boiler room, a desolate Captain Turner (Kenneth Cranham) alone on the bridge, and floating ‘star angel’ corpses are strangely reminiscent of Titanic.

Nevertheless, the horrors of the attack and the subsequent sinking are real enough; as is life aboard the U-Boat. And Turner it appears, was not the only scapegoat. German jubilation was quickly subdued by world reaction and the U-Boat Captain accused of “misinterpreting” orders.

Not surprisingly, Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic failed to truly answer any of the vital questions. It did however, leave no doubt in my mind that this unprovoked attack on a liner carrying civilians not only redefined the rules of war but also used innocent men, women and children as pawns to further a cause for the very first time. And if that’s not infamy, I don’t know what is……

Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic was shown on BBC 1 on Sunday, May 27, 2007.