Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools, 1965, 2 ¾ stars

Fools  imitates life

Vivien Leigh co-stars in Ship of Fools.

Exclusive to MeierMovies, August 30, 2022

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies, I’m one film closer to being a Vivien Leigh completist. The channel recently aired a tribute to the legendary British actress and included her last movie, Ship of Fools, from 1965.

The title comes, of course, from Plato’s Republic, written around 375 B.C., and is a metaphor for ignorant government. Under the direction of Stanley Kramer – and with a script by Abby Mann, based on the novel by Katherine Anne Porter – the ship gets an update.

The story involves an eclectic collection of passengers and crew sailing from Mexico to Germany in 1933 (just as Hitler is coming to power). Aside from the Robert Altmanesque array of interwoven plots, what struck me were the similarities between cast and characters. Leigh, for instance, was close to a full mental and physical breakdown, and her character, the middle-aged Mary Treadwell, is in a similarly fragile state. (Leigh died two years after the film’s release, at age 53.)

Lee Marvin and Leigh get top billing, but the film really belongs to Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner. Signoret, whose character, like Leigh’s, also contemplates the ravages of time, looks noticeably older than in Les Diaboliques, from 1955. And Werner, whose character (the ship’s doctor) dies of a heart attack, also succumbed to a heart attack, at age 61. Further, in real life, Werner (an Austrian pacifist and anti-Socialist) married a Jewish woman and was partially outcast because of it, a fate shared by another character in the film (Freytag, played by Alf Kjellin).

Lastly, Glocken, a passenger played by Michael Dunn, is relegated to a lesser dinner table, presumably because others are uncomfortable with his appearance. (He’s a dwarf.) Dunn received the same treatment in real life but overcame most of it, paving the way for today’s similarly sized actors. And he, along with Signoret and Werner, received Oscar nominations for their work on this film. (The film itself got a nom for best picture.)

The film contains other social messages too, which isn’t surprising, considering this is a Kramer production. They range from the lesson that people are generally hot messes (a point Kramer’s masterpiece, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World also makes) to a commentary on the treatment of migrant workers to observations on the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism.

Some of this messaging is heavy-handed and, along with the 150-minute runtime and large doses of melodrama, might make the film a tough watch for today’s audiences. It was even a tough one for some contemporary critics, who labeled it “Grand Hotel afloat.” It was an occasional struggle for me too, though, in the end, I agreed less with the film’s detractors and more with The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who called it a “powerful, ironic film [with a] wealth of reflection upon the human condition.”

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For more information about this film, visit IMDB and Wikipedia.