Ship of Fools

by Glenn Erickson Mar 10, 2018

Secure one major book with a serious subject, sign up a wagonload of stars (including a legend or two) and make sure every cookie-cutter character repeatedly explains themselves to the camera in close-up. That formula worked well for Stanley Kramer in 1965; his film hasn’t much of a reputation but the cast is gold. A bright new transfer makes the picture look very good.

Ship of Fools
Powerhouse Indicator
1965 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 149 min. / Street Date March 9, 2018 / 39.95
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
Film Editor: Robert C. Jones
Special visual effects: John Burke, Farciot Edouart, Albert Whitlock
Original Music: Ernest Gold
Written by Abby Mann from the novel by Katherine Anne Porter
Produced and directed by
Stanley Kramer


Stanley Kramer’s ‘big issue’ movies may never be considered classics, but a couple seem worthy of new consideration, especially On the Beach. Kramer surely had the longest run of any ‘issue’ oriented filmmaker in Hollywood, and it’s perhaps unfair to give him grief for some of his efforts, like Not as a Stranger. Ironically, his one really beloved show is a manic, over-baked super-comedy, in which the only serious issue is making a big joke out of human greed and folly.


1965’s Ship of Fools is a class- ‘A’ Hollywood production, yet is also a lumbering and obvious soap overflowing with self-importance. It can boast 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. It’s her last movie, reportedly filmed amid bouts of depression. The slow-moving drama may be a morbid traffic wreck, but with all those good actors tackling their roles in such a sincere manner, the end result still contains quite a bit of entertainment value.

We drop into the middle of a particularly ugly humanitarian situation, in 1933. The German ship Vera leaves Vera Cruz bound for Bremerhaven Germany by way of Cuba and Tenerife, carrying six hundred Spanish refugees in steerage and a first class composed of snobs, racists, and emotionally fragile lost souls. Insecure American Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh) is 46 and fearful of old age; baseball bum Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin) is a skirt-chasing has-been. Fascist publisher Siegfried Rieber (José Ferrer) openly states his hatred of Jews. Kindly salesman Julius Lowenthal (Heinz Rühmann) is banished to a corner table with Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn), a highly congenial dwarf. Rich Jenny Brown (Elizabeth Ashley) doesn’t understand her ‘socially committed’ artist boyfriend David (George Segal). Finally (not counting numerous 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. Is anybody even a little happy on this ship?.


Acting as a dignified court jester to this pathetic display of the Human Condition, Michael Dunn’s Carl Glocken directly addresses the audience right at the top of the show: “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.

Even 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 Kramer has improved on some of his earlier, slower dramas. His editor has at least six dramatic main events and four or five side bouts to inter-cut. So many actors are waiting to grab quality close-up time that constant interest is guaranteed. José Ferrer’s nasty Siegfried Rieber theorizes about eliminating inferior races. Lee Marvin’s Bill Tenney tries to get laid. George Segal’s David and Elizabeth Ashley’s Jenny argue: she hates his political art, and he would really appreciate some submissive feminine support. Heinz Rühmann’s amiable Julius Rosenthal doesn’t mind being discriminated against for being Jewish, but he has a lamentable habit of saying ironic 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, composer Ernest Gold spares us a musical sting for that line; even though Hitler’s ideas had been made clear in 1933, Herr Rosenthal is made a fool for not being clairvoyant about how bad things will get. By contrast, the dwarf Carl really is psychic, as he can see what’s in store for all, and can speak to the audience directly. He’s basically Yoda, twelve years before Star Wars.


The film’s sensitivity toward oppressed minorities doesn’t extend to its treatment of Latinos. The very proper German captain (Charles Korvin) has unaccountably allowed a troupe of trashy Flamenco-dancing gypsies into first class. The gypsy dancers are all whores, and their leader Pepe (José Greco) is pimping them out to all comers. While the first class passengers debate civility among themselves, the mostly unwashed and uncouth Spanish-speakers in steerage remain ‘unfortunate.’ The despicable gypsy kids even toss a dog overboard, just for fun.

In the minor acting leagues, poor little Gila Golan (of Our Man Flint and The Valley of Gwangi) is upset because nobody will dance with her. Morose Alf Kelljin riles at being ‘outed’ as the husband of a Jewess, but has a darker, more shameful secret of his own.

BarBara Luna’s gypsy dancer Amparo has a semi-romantic encounter with a young German boy, a virgin. She almost redeems the film’s negative gypsy stereotypes, only to become another stereotype, the hooker who takes pity on a newbie. Amparo even reveals her trade secrets when she shimmies and sways against the boy, slowly — it’s called meneo, a word we don’t have a direct translation for in English.

Lee Marvin’s ball player is too cheap to pay for amor and ends up in a drunken brawl with Vivien Leigh’s Miss Treadwell. Their donnybrook at least gives the trailer some powerhouse visuals. It really looks as if Leigh is unloading a lifetime of anti-male rage onto the very surprised-looking Marvin. The punishment Lee suffers is a good warm-up for the rage Angie Dickinson will unleash on him a couple of years later, in Point Blank.


That’s an alarming detail in film that’s over two hours of characters that can’t wait to bare their souls to one another. That’s a lot of explaining, arguing, self-loathing and pontificating; most scene-pairings are little more than exclamatory ping pong games. Our hopes to see Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret spar in a juicy scene come to naught; I don’t think they appear in the same shot with one another. If Kramer really wanted to get publicity, he’d have written a good cat fight into the script.

Vivien Leigh is quite good but she traces a shallow, predictable character arc. The most successful subplot is the steamy romance between Oskar Werner’s weak-hearted doctor Schumann and Simone Signoret’s soulful prisoner, La Condesa. Their pairing generates the chemistry that the others lack. Kramer’s camera choices and cutting is far more sensitive here than in other romantic face-offs, and Werner’s inner feelings are beautifully expressed.


The drama elsewhere doesn’t seem so profound. The irony wears pretty thin when a ‘good’ German couple’s dog almost drowns; they dote over the mutt and dismiss the fact that a Spaniard drowned saving it. The Nazi admits to the Jew, ‘gee, maybe you’re not so bad. There’s nothing personal in my opinions.’ The ball player confesses to being a bum, to the confused Karl.

Stanley Kramer’s film has some serious production deficiencies. The flat, high-key lighting drains the dramatic possibilities from many scenes. Even more crippling is the set design and the costumes, none of which make us feel we are on a real boat or in a real past. Most boat compartments are missing a wall, and long lenses destroy any sense of intimacy — they might as well be stage sets. Most of the men wear period clothing, but all the women under forty have anachronistic 1965 hairdos and dresses. Beautiful Gila Golan ends up looking like Tricia Nixon. Elizabeth Ashley’s hair and dresses prevent her from creating a credible characterization. It’s a big loss, as Ashley is very good. Just a couple of years later, Bonnie & Clyde would make period authenticity a ‘thing’ for American movies (although Faye Dunaway’s hair definitely cheated).

Finally seen in HD, we marvel at the film’s brilliant special effects. Albert Whitlock’s establishing shots of the ship Vera at sea, entering and leaving ports, etc. are sensationally good. Some models are used, but the dramatic lighting in Whitlock’s flawless composites produces amazingly lifelike scenes. The water is live-action but painted elements to most of the rest — the boat and patterns of clouds are paintings moving on different levels. One wide shot of a mob of refugees waiting on a dock is also a painting. Their movement is cheated through moving element tricks.


An establishing wide shot of Ms. Signoret disembarking does a complex tilt and adjust on one of these live action/painting composites, showing a dock in the foreground, a long breakwater stretching into the distance, and the lights of Spain beyond. Rocco Gioffre showed me how shots like this had been done at MGM — a vertical composite image was filmed on a sideways 65mm camera. The tall image had the boat at the bottom, with the painted parts of the dock and the breakwater and the coastline above. After that static, vertical composite was finished, it was optically copied with a 35mm optical camera that moved upward, simulating a natural camera tilt. It’s all but imperceptible. The same year, Peter Ellenshaw did scores of shots like this in color for Disney’s Mary Poppins.

Ship of Fools begged for Oscar nominations and got a bunch of ’em; but it won for B&W cinematography (?) and Art Direction, Set Decoration in B&W (??). All of its competitors were better in those departments. Michael Dunn and Simone Signoret were certainly worthy, however.

It must have been painful for Stanley Kramer when actor Werner Klemperer, who plays several semi-romantic scenes with Vivien Leigh, almost immediately took the role of Colonel Klink on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes. I rather doubt that the Ship of Fools connection gave anybody the idea of asking Leigh to guest star with Bob Crane on the Stalag 13 set.

Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of Ship of Fools presents Stanley Kramer’s star-power prestige picture in the best possible light; Sony-Tristar’s 2003 DVD pales before this fine new transfer. Only now could I appreciate the artistry of all those clever matte effects. The proper aspect ratio helps a lot as well, to keep all those shipboard scenes from looking like TV’s The Love Boat.

Ernest Gold’s score for the picture is no beauty. For the titles and the departure from Vera Cruz we hear Latin rhythms similar to the music for the Sharks in Bernstein’s West Side Story. Some of the obvious music cues are probably not Gold’s fault, any more than he’s responsible for Stanley Kramer insistence on letting ‘Waltzing Matilda’ encroach on Gold’s original score for On the Beach. At one point Vivien Leigh’s pitiful Mary Treadwell, stone drunk and walking alone to her cabin, breaks out in a crazy Charleston dance, just for the hell of it. Had the music track been left silent, the moment might have been special — she of course only hears the music in her head. No, Kramer has Gold slam in six seconds of a ‘Black Bottom’- like jazz cue. Terrible.


Powerhouse’s extras cover all bases. Was Ship of Fools at one time to have been a Twilight Time disc? The TT team of Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs handle the feature commentary. The disc’s two featurettes appear to have been produced in 2007, perhaps for an unreleased Sony disc? Stanley Kramer’s widow Karen Kramer provides a brief intro and joins actress Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, a script supervisor and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs to talk about the production and its camerawork. An illustrated first pressing booklet (40 pages) includes an article by Neil Sinyard, a MFB review by Tom Milne that demolishes Stanley Kramer’s approach to drama, and interviews with Kramer, BarBara Luna, Elizabeth Schmidtmer and Betty Marvin focusing on Lee Marvin. BarBara Luna says that she introduced Marvin to Michelle Triola, who was her stand-in on the film.

Ship of Fools tells a ‘so sad, so ironic’ story of attitudes in 1933, when only German Jews directly affected could fully realize what was in store for Germany. I’ve always felt that this particular story played things too ‘safe’ by avoiding unpleasant political truths about American complicity in the pre-war tragedy. The really cruel ironies came later in the decade. Desperate Jewish refugees were being driven from country to country in Europe as the Nazis advanced: see the brave 1941 movie So Ends Our Night. On our side of the world, shiploads of desperate political refugees drifted around the Caribbean while the isolationist (and pro-German) U.S. Congress refused them asylum. Some were shipped right back to Europe to face likely extermination. Some were helped to gain haven in various Central American and Caribbean countries by American activists, some of them in the movie industry. Actor Lionel Stander was reportedly active in this.

That story has never been adequately told on film, and the ‘brave’ Stanley Kramer would never have touched it, because the American heroes that saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of these refugees were resolute anti-fascists. Some were Communist activists, and were later blacklisted and driven out of the industry. Not to denigrate Katherine Anne Porter’s novel, but to me Ship of Fools is the ‘safe’ approach to the subject.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ship of Fools
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good (a matter of taste)
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent Original mono
Supplements: Audio commentary with Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo; Karen Kramer Introduction (2 mins); On Board the Ship of Fools (2007, 28 mins); Voyage on a Soundstage (2007, 11 mins); trailer; image gallery; Limited edition booklet with a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and historic articles on the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2018

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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