Sunday, 21 June 2009

Ship of Fools (1965)

This all-star film from director Stanley Kramer is set in the early 30s and tells of a voyage from Mexico to Germany. It has one of the great ensemble casts of its day and these are the main characters: Vivien Leigh in her last role is the jaded, world-weary woman that she played so perfectly in her previous film, "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone"; Simone Signoret is an aristo headed for a Spanish island jail after formenting revolution amongst the workers; Oskar Werner is the unhappily married ship's doctor with heart problems who loses his heart to Signoret; Jose Ferrer who lords it over the passengers at the Captain's Table, where only the purest of Germans are welcome, spouts Nazi propaganda to anyone who will listen; Lee Marvin is an uncouth redneck who can't see what the fuss is about -- he never even saw a Jew until he was 15 ("too busy lynching Negroes" quips Leigh); rich Elizabeth Ashley and poor artist George Segal are the sex-obsessed couple who have nought else in common; Jose Greco entertains with his Spanish dance troupe which he pimps out to the passengers each evening; Heinz Ruehmann, a stalwart of German cinema since silent days in his only English-speaking role, is the ostracized Jewish salesman who does not fear for his future since he considers himself a German foremost; finally there is the Oscar-nominated Michael Dunn, one of the most memorable dwarfs in film history. Add to these names various archetypes (the religion-spouting bigot and his hard-done-by virginal nephew, the couple whose pampered fat dog is treated as their child, and more) plus some 600 immigrant workers crowded onto the lower decks who are being sent back to Spain and the stage is set for non-stop drama.

However to paraphrase Dunn's final words in the film, 'What have we learned from all this? Absolutely nothing!' The movie is like a shipboard romance that fades into the distance when one faces the realities of life on shore, but it is a fascinating voyage while it lasts.
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