It's a cliche to say it, but it's true - they don't make movies like this anymore. Ship Of Fools is an intelligent film populated by a variety of beautifully drawn characters portrayed by a cast of actors who know the subtle art of making their interior feelings exterior. Abby Mann's splendid script is based on a book by Katherine Anne Porter and makes some of the usual concessions of adaptations - the hunchback in the book becomes a dwarf in the film, for instance. But the themes and passions remain intact - and the characters and their emotions are as involving now as they were when this film was first released in the 1960s.
Often called a kind of floating Grand Hotel, the ship of the title is a second rate tub taking its crew and disparate collection of passengers from Mexico to Germany in the uncertain days of the mid-1930s. The impending doom of World War Two and the Holocaust loom large for everybody to see, but the mostly self-centered characters remain oblivious to all the omens. Tension and passion are always in the air, but the superb dialogue leaves much of it in the subtext.
Of course, any all-star enterprise will succeed or fail on the strength of its performances and Ship Of Fools provides more than a single film's worth of acting greatness. Vivien Leigh, at the end of her rollercoaster career, richly deserves her top billing. Her aging coquette may have hints of both Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois, but she makes her character here equally memorable. Lee Marvin, as a washed-up baseball player, also proves that he could really act when he wanted to. And Jose Ferrer is gloriously over the top as the German businessman eager to embrace Nazi ideals. German actor Heinz Ruehmann is quietly effective and touching as a permanently cheerful Jew ("There are a million Jews in Germany," he says at one point. "What are they going to do - kill us all?"). Michael Dunn as the narrating dwarf maintains a nice air of cynicism. Even the famous flamenco dancer Jose Greco is outstanding in a surprisingly unflattering role.
Best of all, however, are Oskar Werner as the ship's disillusioned doctor and Simone Signoret as a drug-addicted political prisoner on her way to an uncertain future. These two - Werner in particular - bring screen acting to new heights and, in their scenes together, make the audience genuinely care for them. I never cease to be thrilled by Werner's performance.
On the minus side are George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley - two actors who we all know are capable of being much better. Their cardboard characters and trite dialogue seem to belong to another film. Possibly this pair of bohemians were supposed to appeal to the younger members of the audience. Compared to the rest of the cast, they are an embarassment and a certain impatience sets in whenever they are on the screen.
The film's views and messages may now seem a bit obvious but they are presented with such superlative craftmanship that you easily forgive a bit of occasional creakiness. There are many wonderful moments to compensate. Such as when Signoret asks Werner if he is happy. Werner smiles slightly, shrugs and replies: "Who is happy?" with such a wealth of world weariness and resignation that he seems to have crammed an entire life (and acting master class) into those few words. Great films, someone once said, are made up of memorable moments. Ship Of Fools has more than its fair share of them.
The "Ship of Fools" is a German luxury liner sailing home from Mexico in 1933. Aboard are a classic roster of characters - the ship's noble doctor (Oskar Werner) who falls in love with the drug-addicted activist (Simone Signoret), the troubled young lovers (Elizabeth Ashley and George Segal), the over-the-hill grande dame (Vivian Leigh), the washed-up ball player (Lee Marvin), the pro-Furher German (Jose Ferrer), etc. The camera floats leisurely from group to group as they interact on the month-long cruise. The most memorable character is the sensitive Dr. Schumann, who alone sees the foolishness of the passengers and the futility of his own life. Werner gives a wonderfully touching performance and the movie is best when he is on screen. Signoret is also very good as a contessa who is being taken to prison. Leigh and Ferrer are both over-the-top, playing a stereotypical drunken divorce and anti-Semite, respectively. When this movie was made (1965), the story and characters were not as cliché as they are now. It's dated and predictable now; the ladies' costumes aren't right for the time, and it's soap opera all the way. Still, I enjoyed it and recommend it as fun and entertaining, and a good chance to see a lot of well-known actors in one place.
Although he certainly had more than his share of critics in his heyday, Stanley Kramer's reputation has taken a particularly sustained battering for self-important and bloated sermonising long before his death. 1965's Ship of Fools certainly isn't immune to his love of assembling an eclectic all-star cast in a message movie, but here there's less of a sense of a big important statement and more of an air of inevitable tragedy as it follows an assorted group of passengers and crew travelling from Mexico to a Germany on the cusp of embracing the Nazi Party. It's a state of the nation piece that's more reminder than wake-up call, and Abby Mann's script is knowing enough to poke fun at the conceit - "Do you think this boat is a cross-section of German society?" asks one sceptical passenger - but one that plays more like a big-budget soap opera than political drama and is probably all the more enjoyable for it. Cast members Oskar Werner and Jose Ferrer would make the reverse crossing 11 years later in Voyage Of The Damned [DVD], which wore its politics even more proudly on its sleeve, but where that was all premise and unrealised good intentions with a star-studded cast propping up thinly drawn parts with little to do, Abby Mann's script for its predecessor concentrates on the characters to get his points across.
Like all long voyages (and this one lasts two-and-a-half hours) your tolerance for the passengers will dictate how much you enjoy it, and like all passenger rosters some are more interesting than others. Certainly a little of Ferrer's spot-on boorish arrogance and domineering personality as an early adopter of the Nazis' genocidal zeal for purifying the country of its undesirables goes a long way despite the excellence of his performance while Vivien Leigh's faded rose facing up to the ravages of time and loneliness doesn't make quite as much of an impression as you might expect and Lee Marvin is surprisingly awful as a washed up redneck baseball player. But offsetting them is Werner's ailing ship's doctor and his shipboard romance with Simone Signoret's drug-addicted artistocrat on her way to island exile, Heinz Ruhmann's likeable Jewish religious paraphernalia salesman whose faith in the best of human nature blinds him to the inevitable, Charles Korvin's pragmatic but still sympathetic captain who likes to listen to Ferrer's rants because they remind him "that no-one could take that party of his seriously," and Michael Dunn's amiably philosophical "sawed-off intellectual" dwarf who knows he is surrounded by fools who can only recognise the foolishness of others. Falling inbetween are George Segal's painter and his deteriorating relationship with `modern woman' Elizabeth Ashley, Jose Greco and his company of flamenco dancers he pimps out to the first class passengers, a steerage deck full of peons and a surprisingly understated Werner Klemperer as the First Officer (offering the once-in-a-lifetime sight of Hogan's Heroes' Colonel Klink hitting on Scarlett O'Hara).
Despite being shot entirely on a studio set with some at times noticeable back projection and the odd theatrical moment, it's a real old-fashioned movie with occasional reminders that it was made in the 60s with the odd biologically indelicate reference that never would have passed the old Production Code, while the ensemble casting is much more European-friendly than old Hollywood, with the German characters played for the most part by Germans. Though at times it feels more like one of Otto Preminger's star-heavy Sixties pictures, Kramer's directs with a surprisingly light touch for the most part, playing down the big statements or visual grandeur for something more intimate. As Dunn ultimately observes, it's ultimately of no great significance, but it's a surprisingly satisfying wallow with a few excellent performances along the way.
Sadly there are no extras on the DVD. The standalone release from Columbia is a fullframe transfer, but the film is available in its original widescreen ratio as part of a four-film collection from Mill Creek also including The Chase, Bobby Deerfield / Baby the Rain Must Fall [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] - though with two films on each disc the quality suffers a little while remaining acceptable - though the best presentation to date is as part of the Stanley Kramer Film Collection [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC], which offers the film in widescreen and includes an introduction by Kramer's widow, a stills gallery and two new documentaries about the making of the film. There's also an extras-free US Blu-ray release that double-bills it with Lilith: early reviews indicate Fools has good picture quality but Lilith has a very disappointing transfer.
I liked this 1965 film a lot and even more - it impressed me. Below, more of my impressions, with some limited SPOILERS.
This film begins with passengers boarding at Veracruz (Mexico) a German liner which will carry them to Bremerhaven (Germany). The story takes place in 1933, a time when the Nazis just arrived to power in Germany, but before the establishment of totalitarian state which was to be known as III Reich (that would be finalized in 1934) - for that reason most people on board do not realise yet how badly their lives will be affected in the next months...
The first person we meet is a chain smoking midget named Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn), a kind of cicerone/narrator, guiding us through the ship and introducing more and more colourful characters. Those characters are too many to be all named, but they include:
- a recently divorced, aging and depressed but still beautiful woman (Vivien Leigh), - a rude and grumpy baseball player at the end of his career (Lee Marvin), - a German businessman and fervent Nazi named Rieber (Jose Ferrer, brilliant!), - a Jewish businessman named Lowenthal, who is also a war veteran, decorated for his heroism by the Kaiser himself during World War I (Heinz Ruhmann), - a drug addicted Spanish countess (Simone Signoret), - a Mexican trouble maker and self-proclaimed revolutionary (Hanry Calvin, mostly known for his role of Segeant Garcia in "Zorro")
This film is an adaptation of a best-selling novel "Ship of fools" written in 1962 by Katherine Anne Porter and was directer by Stanley Kramer, famous amongst others for "On the beach" and "Judgement at Nuremberg". It was nominated for 8 Oscars, including the Best Film, but ultimately got only two, for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.
This film alternates drama and humour in quite equal proportions, but even in lighter moments we are nevertheless regularly reminded that this "ship of fools" sails to a very dark place, which is going to turn soon into hell on earth...
The treasures of this film are many, but to my personal taste the absolute n°1 is the scene in which Lee Marvin takes the WORST beating in his all screen career. Lee Marvin was seriously mistreated on the screen by many notorious people, including Toshiro Mifune, Randolph Scott, Ernest Borgnine, John Wayne (repeatedly), Gene Hackman and even Raquel Welch, but in this film he is simply beaten senseless by the last person you would imagine capable of such a deed and although very violent this scene is absolutely hilarious...)))
This is a clever, deep and thought provoking and yet very entertaining film. A masterpiece. To buy, watch and keep absolutely. Enjoy!
We share the voyage of a modest German passenger boat from S America to Germany in the 1930s. The passengers are in many respects a cross section of German society with the inevitable conflicts that follow. Some see the problems which will shortly engulf Germany but many do not. This is a very watch-able movie, interesting and enjoyable. No violence! Yes, there is a "message" but it is a gentle one - that there are few bad people on this boat but many fools.
This is a very beautifull film. I like the rythm, the many stories told in it and the good, good actors. It seems to have been a good group work of the actors and the other contributers. I bought this film because of Oskar Werner's participation. His play is wonderful, but i think the whole film has something to tell us in our days - it is a contribution to the understanding of what happened in Germany in the thirties before the war. Maybe young people should have the opportunity to see this film at school.