Voyage of the Damned (1976) is a superb ensemble historical drama concerning the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner carrying Jewish refugees on an ill-fated journey to Cuba in the weeks before the start of World War II. Adapted from Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts's book of the same name, it follows the crew and (mostly fictionalized) fate of the passengers who find themselves helpless pawns of both Nazi propaganda and anti-Semitism by countries on the other side of the Atlantic refusing them political asylum.
Produced during the craze for disaster films, this all-star epic's advertising vaguely if deceptively hinted at something in that genre. When I saw the film for the first time in its network television premiere, I half-expected some kind of Titanic-type disaster near the end. Instead I found myself riveted to this mostly accurate dramatization of a true-life story.
The screenplay, by Steve Shagan and David Butler, is intelligent and never lapses into melodrama, and the acting is unilaterally excellent. The film's producers sought great actors instead of big stars, and the film is positively loaded with them: Max von Sydow, Oskar Werner, Malcolm McDowell, Orson Welles, James Mason, Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, Ben Gazzara, Maria Schell, and many others.
Timeless Media Group's release of this ITC production, a Blu-ray plus DVD combo, offers a good video transfer of the film's original 155-minute theatrical version. In the early days of home video, Magnetic Video released an extended 182-minute cut but this isn't that, nor are these deleted scenes included as an extra feature. However, this does mark the first time the film has been released in its correct wide screen aspect ratio.
The MS St. Louis departs from Hamburg carrying 937 Jews and a non-Jewish German crew. Fleeing persecution and internment in concentration camps, the mix of wealthy First Class and Tourist Class passengers experience a complex mix of emotions. Some are relieved to get out of Germany, others are suspicions about their chances of safely reaching Havana, Cuba, and most regret or feel guilty about leaving their homeland, oppressive and life-threatening though it has become. In one of the film's best scenes there's a costume ball where a vocalist sings Wien Wien, nur du allen ("Vienna, City of My Dreams"). This wistful song harking back to a more open, idyllic pre-Nazi Europe brings tears to everyone's eyes. "That's curious," notes Otto Schiendick, a Nazi spy masquerading as a purser, "They're Jews. And yet they miss Germany!"
"Why shouldn't they?" asks another crewmember. "They're German."
The passengers are initially unaware of the Third Reich's real purpose, to publicize their supposedly humanitarian act while behind the scenes secretly fanning the flames of anti-Semitism abroad. By engineering Cuba's refusal to accept them, which in turn prompts other nations to decline their entry (including, shamefully, the United States), it will, so believe the Nazis, force their hand and, ultimately, the Final Solution.
The movie alternates between the political maneuverings in Cuba, the quandary that ship's captain Gustav Schröder (Max von Sydow), sympathetic to the Jews' plight, experiences, and the stories of various passengers and their families. Among them: wealthy couple Professor Egon Kreisler (Oskar Werner) and his wife, Denise (Faye Dunaway), he a dispirited, defeated, and fatalistic medical doctor; Carl and Lili Rosen (Sam Wanamaker and Lee Grant), he a broken man unable to cope with losing everything but his family; their daughter Anna (Lynne Frederick), who falls in love with the captain's steward, Max Gunter (Malcolm McDowell); Professor and Mrs. Weiler (Luther Adler and Wendy Hiller), he dying en route; Mr. and Mrs. Hauser (Nehemiah Persoff and Maria Schell), who are reunited with their daughter, Mira (Katherine Ross), she working as a high-priced prostitute and pretending to be Christian; Aaron Pozner and Joseph Manasse (Paul Koslo and Jonathan Pryce, the latter making his screen debut) as concentration camp survivors.
Even at a methodically paced 155 minutes, Voyage of the Damned struggles to cram in so much good material, and in some respects the story might have played even better expanded into a television miniseries twice its present length. In the 155-minute cut, for instance, Julie Harris, one of Broadway's great actresses, has a tiny role, a grandmotherly figure enlisted to care for two small girls whose doctor father (Victor Spinetti) anxiously awaits their arrival in Havana. Likewise, the great German actress Maria Schell has perhaps five or six lines of dialogue, confined to a single if powerful scene.
Conversely, because the plot turns on other characters whose roles could not so easily be reduced, an actor like Spinetti (best known for his comedic turns in The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and Help!), is afforded a meaty dramatic role full of emotion, he desperately begging and pleading with corrupt Cuban officials (notably Orson Welles's pragmatic millionaire, José Estedes) to secure his daughters' entry visas into Cuba.
Nonetheless, the acting by all is never less than very good and many of the performances are simply outstanding, particularly by Werner, von Sydow and, as a pair, Koslo and Pryce. The several scenes pairing von Sydow and Werner are just mesmerizing, the Captain sensitive and subtly trying to help the passengers through the bitter Professor Kreisler, who intellectually recognizes the captain's humanity but is so emotionally beaten by his experiences with non-Jewish Germans that he remains stubbornly aloof.
Certain casting aspects are fascinating. Playing a married couple unable to work and forced to flee their homeland, Sam Wanamaker and Lee Grant were in fact both victims of the Hollywood blacklist, with Wanamaker fleeing to England to continue working. Both seem to be channeling this anger in their emotionally-charged performances.
The casting of so many fine actors in challenging and/or atypical roles creates some mild confusion, with singularly British character actors Denholm Elliott and Leonard Rossiter playing Nazis in the opening scene, and Orson Welles and James Mason playing Cubans alongside real Hispanic talent like Fernando Rey and Jose Ferrer. Also in Cuba, Greek-American actor Michael Constantine plays a German liaison alongside real German character player Günter Meisner (Mr. Slugworth in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory). In tiny parts look for Donald Houston, Philip Stone, Laura "Black Emmanuelle" Gemser (as Welles's girlfriend!), and Billy Jack's Tom Laughlin.
The film is historically accurate in most respects except one, for which we can all be grateful: An epilogue states that of the 937 Jewish passengers, 600 ultimately lost their lives in concentration camps or otherwise died before the end of the war. Since the film's release many more survivors turn out to have made it through the war, with more than two-thirds surviving their terrible ordeal.
Video & Audio
Voyage of the Damned was previously released to DVD in full-frame format only, so it's especially nice to see the film in both 1080p high-def and widescreen here. The video transfer sources imperfect elements, with some particularly noticeable film damage at the 57:59 mark. But, for the most part, the presentation is reasonably sharp and an accurate representation of the theatrical release. The DTS-HD 2.0 mono audio is quite good (no audio options or subtitles) and the disc is region A encoded.
Supplements are few, limited to a very good British theatrical trailer and a decent still gallery.
A completely engrossing true story that deserves to be seen by all high-school-age children (and their parents as well), Voyage of the Damned is an excellent film and Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.