Aug. 30, 2011
Ship of Fools (1965)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Stanley Kramer
Stars: Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin

What it's about. This engrossing and entertaining drama takes place on an ocean liner headed to Germany in 1933. We first meet dwarf Michael Dunn, who informs us that it is a ship of fools. They include aging socialite Vivien Leigh and her would-be lover Werner Klemperer a.k.a. Colonel Klink, good-natured Jewish salesman Heinz Rühmann, hottie wallflower Gila Golan, kindly and elderly Lilia Skala, world-weary ship captain Charles Korvin, sad-eyed ship's doctor Oskar Werner, plump narcotics addict Simone Signoret, brutish washed-up baseball player Lee Marvin, liberal painter George Segal and his hottie high maintenance girlfriend Elizabeth Ashley, bigot and pro-Nazi José Ferrer and his athletic mistress Christiane Schmidtmer, dog lovers Kaaren Verne and Oscar Beregi Jr., dancer-smitten servant Charles De Vries, pathetic wood carver David Renard, and obnoxious field worker Henry Calvin.

The only non-fools on the boat are the Spanish flamenco dancer troupe, led by hardened José Greco. They are ostensibly on board as entertainers, but their real purpose is to seduce passengers and take their money.

How others will see it. Ship of Fools is one of those movies that was highly acclaimed at the time of its release, but has since dwindled into near-obscurity. Its length and black and white cinematography work against it. It is noteworthy as the final movie in the troubled career of Vivien Leigh. It also received an impressive eight Oscar nominations, in all major categories except Best Director. It won for its set design and cinematography.

Today, the user ratings are high but not very high. The overall quality of the film helps, of course, but some complain about the movie's length, a proliferation of supporting actors that fracture the story, and its soap opera-styled subplots.

How I felt about it. We like it. The dialogue is first-rate, as is the direction and cast. It's especially fun to watch Michael Dunn's reactions to the madness of his fellow passengers, and José Ferrer shamelessly camps it up, for our amusement.

Not that it's perfect. We could live without George Segal and his "man of the people" pretensions, Henry Calvin's poverty is a sorry excuse for arrogance, and too often the characters turn to violence. Werner must really be lonely to fall for the clearly overweight Signoret. The actors are generally a few years older than their characters. But most of the relationships click, and the writing, based on the Katherine Anne Porter novel, is superior.

Which leads me to wonder. Director Stanley Kramer and writer Abby Mann also teamed up on Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which was even more acclaimed than Ship of Fools. I am fascinated with Ship of Fools, and bored to distraction by Judgment at Nuremberg, despite the greater popularity (in terms of user votes and user ratings) of the latter.

So, why, for me, is Ship of Fools so much better? Did Kramer and Mann manage to improve greatly over the span of four years? No, I think it has to do with expectations, and the need to meet them. People expect drama and solemnity from the theme of Judgment at Nuremberg, and thus do not question its over-ripe theatrics. Ship of Fools, on the other hand, is too easily passed off as a flawed drama.