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Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools
Columbia TriStar
1965 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame (adapted Pan-Scan) / 149 min. / Street Date December 2, 2003 / 24.95
Starring Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, José Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, José Greco, Michael Dunn, Charles Korvin, Heinz Rühmann, Lilia Skala, Barbara Luna, Alf Kjellin, Werner Klemperer, Gila Golan, Kaaren Verne
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer Robert Clatworthy
Special Photographic effects John Burke, Farciot Edouart, Albert Whitlock
Film Editor Robert C. Jones
Original Music Ernest Gold
Written by Abby Mann from the novel by Katherine Anne Porter
Produced and directed by Stanley Kramer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

I keep coming back to Stanley Kramer movies I don't respect because there must be something enjoyable in pompous mediocrity. Kramer had the longest run of any 'issue' oriented filmmaker in Hollywood, and his movies aren't exactly bad ... but it's hard to watch them now without being critical.

Ship of Fools is a lumbering and obvious soap overflowing with self-importance. It has at least eight actors who would be interesting no matter what they were in, and an appearance by Vivien Leigh that is the stuff of Hollywood legend - her last movie, reportedly filmed in between bouts of depression. The whole affair is like a morbid traffic wreck - we watch to see what's bad and what's good. Along the way, some of it resembles entertainment.


1933. The German ship Vera leaves Vera Cruz bound for Bremerhaven by way of Cuba and Tenerife, carrying 600 migrants and a first class of snobs, racists, and emotionally fragile Europeans. Snooty Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh) is 46 and fearful of old age; Baseball bum Bill Tenney is a wreck. Fascist publisher Siegfried Rieber (José Ferrer) openly states his hatred of Jews, while salesman Julius Lowenthal (Heinz Rühmann) is banished to a corner table with dwarf Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn). Rich Jenny Brown (Elizabeth Ashley) doesn't understand her 'socially committed' artist boyfriend David (George Segal). Finally (not counting various less central conflicts), the ship's doctor Wilhelm Schumann (Oskar Werner) falls in love with La Condesa (Simone Signoret), a sad woman en route to prison for helping starving Mexicans stage an uprising. As Carl Glocken puts it, this is a Ship of Fools.

Michael Dunn gives it to us straight right at the top of the show, addressing the audience directly: This is a Ship of Fools, and if we watch carefully, we might recognize ourselves among the passengers. I've always hoped to see Dunn followed up the gangplank by Rod Serling, giving us a wink.

At two and a half hours, Abby Mann's talky screenplay and Kramer's flat direction certainly keep up a good pace; in that respect it's an improvement on some of Kramer's earlier, slower dramas. There are at least six main events and four or five side bouts to cross cut between, and so many actors ready to grab some quality time in a closeup, something's always happening. Nasty José Ferrer theorizes about eliminating inferior races. Lee Marvin tries to get laid. George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley argue: she hates his political art, and he wants submissive feminine support. Heinz Rühmann doesn't mind being discriminated against because he's Jewish, and says portentious things like, "All will get better in Germany. There's almost a million Jews there. What are they going to do, kill all of us?" Thankfully, Ernest Gold spares us a musical sting for that line.

In the minor acting leagues, poor little Gila Golan  1 is upset because nobody will dance with her. Alf Kelljin riles at being 'outed' as the husband of a Jewess, but has a darker secret of his own. The very proper German captain (Charles Korvin) has unaccountably allowed a troupe of trashy Flamenco-dancing gypsies on board. Their leader Pepe (José Greco) is pimping the young women out to all comers. 2 Lee Marvin's too cheap to pay, and ends up in a drunken brawl with Vivien Leigh that gives the trailer some powerhouse visuals.

Actually, very little happens besides talk. Most of the actors state their woes in position speeches and many scene-pairings amount to little. Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret might appear in the same shot with one another, but I doubt it. The situation would seem ripe for a diva rivalry, but Savant's not up on that kind of stuff.

The only really successful subplot is the steamy romance between weak-hearted Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret's soulful prisoner. It has chemistry that the other pairings lack. Kramer's camera and cutting is far more sensitive here than in other romantic face-offs, and Werner's inner feelings are beautifully expressed.

Most everything else seems rushed and by the book. Ship of Fools is not a cheap movie, as it has several large sets and a couple of instances with crowds of extras. Even some excellent matte work by Albert Whitlock can't keep the boat and various vistas from looking fake, however.

All of the above might be improved if Ship of Fools were creatively lit. It's all high-key flatness, robbing the sets of potential atmosphere. Add that to the anachronistic costumes and hairstyles, and the show plays like a TV movie. In most wide shots, people cast four shadows, indoors and out.

Two favorite moments with Vivien Leigh: One must have been intentional, when she pulls a Scarlett O'Hara pixie smile and affects a deeper southern accent. It's pretty cute. The second is seeing her romanced by good actor Werner Klemperer just before he took the role of Colonel Klink on TV's Hogan's Heroes. I kind of doubt that their relationship on this film gave anybody the idea of asking Leigh to guest star with Bob Crane in Stalag 13.

Columbia TriStar's DVD of Ship of Fools is another big disappointment. The picture was always visually undistinguished on television, and I was hoping for a cropped, enhanced transfer to give it some compositional snap. This transfer is okay for quality, but it's flat. The box says it's flat full frame, but I don't buy it; the titles are extremely wide, and the movie proper appears to be 'adapted-scanned'. That's when the 1:33 frame crops off the left and right, and adds dead space to the top and bottom. It's the kind of transfer that made many laser discs worthless, and doesn't do this DVD any favors.

It's the kind of transfer that makes one fear what Studio DVD execs have in mind for the future. Instead of insulting industry ads in theaters telling us not to pirate movies, so greedy studios won't have to fire the few thousand employees they have left, we need ads telling Studios that letterboxing and 16:9 are the only future that will keep home video a desirable product.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ship of Fools rates:
Movie: Good for the stars, Fair as a movie
Video: Fair
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 19, 2003


1. I guess this is a milestone of sorts. Between this film, Our Man Flint and Valley of Gwangi, I now have every significant film by Gila Golan on DVD. I know, you have to come to DVD Savant to get exclusive insights like this.

2. I'm sure it's from the book, but Latins take a beating in this picture. All the dancers are whores, and the unwashed masses below decks remain unwashed, with only a couple of speaking bits and pitiful little screen time. The first class passengers debate civility among themselves, but the Spanish-speakers are all beneath consideration. The little monster gypsy kids even toss a dog overboard, just for fun.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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