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USA 1965
Directed by
Stanley Kramer
149 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Ship Of Fools

From The Defiant Ones (1958) to Judgement At Nuremburg (1961) to Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) producer-director Stanley Kramer is known for his issue-based films. Ship Of Fools is no exception.

Based on a novel by Katherine Anne Porter and adapted by Abby Mann (who had won an Oscar for his screenplay for Nuremburg), Ship Of Fools depicts a group of people aboard an ocean liner headed from South America to Germany in 1933 in what is a rather programmatic tableau of (largely middle-class) human society.

Introduced by a dwarf (Michael Dunn), an outsider figure who is also a kind of audience surrogate we meet various people including a world-weary divorcee (Vivien Leigh), an unhappily married ship's doctor (Oskar Werner), a drug addict (Simone Signoret) bound for jail, a washed-up baseball player (Lee Marvin), a “left liberal” painter (George Segal) and an enthusiastically a pro-Nazi garment manufacture (José Ferrer), just to mention the familiar names. Therein is one of the problems with the film – an excess of characters. Perhaps on the printed page Porter had the ability to develop all the characters but here there are too many who only get cursory attention and should have been omitted, whilst some of the performances such as Segal’s petulant, self-preoccupied  artist with his dull social realist sketches and Marvin’s oafish jock should have been at least considerably pruned.

It was in its day, when these kind of big cast movies were quite the thing, a well-received film with eight Oscar nominations covering all the major categories except for Best Director (it won for set design and cinematography) however today there is little of interest. Leigh in her last film (she died two years later of tuberculosis) is effective as the somewhat prematurely aged old maid (she is supposed to be 46!) as is Werner as the, literally, wounded medico who, rather improbably, falls for Signoret’s blowsy adventuress.

Mann appears to have preserved quite a deal of Porter’s dialogue as the characters at times speak in near verse form which gives the exchanges an appealing rhythm but Kramer’s direction is characteristically heavy-handed and as a result, even if its themes remain relevant, the film is locked in the period of its making.




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