EXPLORER, MISTRESS, VAGRANT, LOAFER, ARTIST, TRAMP … THEY ARE ALL AT THE CAPTAIN’S TABLE!
Ship of Fools was ultimately to be Vivien Leigh’s last film. Outside of that little vignette most don’t think much of this melodramatic episodic big film. Many don’t even think of it in the context of Vivien Leigh’s participation.
The setting is a German cruise ship sailing from Bremerhaven in 1933 full of, you guessed it, Germans. Well mostly Germans anyway. As such and as any student of history will know, Germany in 1933 was beginning to be a pretty volatile place, especially if you were not one of the Master Race. January of 1933 was when Hitler and the Nazis took power. You can probably fill in the rest of that mental picture.
The passengers and crew are a motley assortment, as such groupings always are. Throughout the lengthy picture there are several interwoven storylines, much like a soap opera would have. A stellar cast of prominent actors effectively infiltrates the proceedings completely. Given the format, there really is no main character.
Vivien Leigh is Mary Treadwell, a bitter as embattled American divorcee. Simone Signoret is a drug addled Countess who is being deported from Germany but falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner as Dr. Schumann). Elizabeth Ashley and George Segal are Jenny and David, a couple at cross purposes with very divergent views on life. And, just for fun, we have Lee Marvin as a drunken skirt chaser and Jose Ferrer as an avid Nazi. It’s never explicitly stated that Jose Ferrer is playing a Nazi, but his various ultra-German espousing mimicking the cries of ethnic cleansing make it obvious.
There are a few other token characters, whose presence on screen perhaps is not as lengthy but even more significant. These include Michael Dunn as Glocken, a dwarf (as he describes himself) and Heinz Rühmann as Lowenthal, a Jewish businessman on holiday.
As Glocken tells us during the introduction ‘we are all fools’ and so we see the cast stumble through their paces. And sadly, it is a tale without a conclusion on screen, and an unhappy one for most in their character’s off screen future. For we know that war is coming and that Hitler’s megalomania coupled with genocidal tendencies will shatter Europe and with it, the lives of all involved.
Much attention is given to Jose Ferrer’s character, whose diatribe on euthanizing the feebleminded, elderly, and otherwise infirm would be comical if there wasn’t history to back it up. Similarly are his frequent (almost constant) comments about Jewry.
The irony comes later, when Jose Ferrer, who has presented himself as the ideal German, is revealed to be a philanderer and not even a German. His mistress and companion on the cruise, a young blonde woman, deserts him on learning this. Lowenthal, at least a third generation German Jew, learns in discussion that Jose Ferrer isn’t from Germany, nor Austria, but rather ‘close to the border.’ Good stuff if perhaps a bit heavy handed.
Perhaps the best moment in this storyline is when everything (according to Jose Ferrer’s character, anyway) is blamed on the Jews, Lowenthal replies, “Well, yes. The Jews and the bicycle riders.” To this Rieber (Jose Ferrer) replies, “Why the bicycle riders?” Lowenthal, “Why the Jews?” Well done.
Some of the other storylines aren’t as good, which reflects the somewhat uneven feel to the film. The relationship between Jenny and David is tired and overdone, and the actors simply are not up to the caliber of the remainder of the cast. Vivien Leigh looks frail and weak, which mirrors the fall of her character, but which also reflects the impact of her own off screen demons.
Here she is a bit over the top until her last scene with a drunken Lee Marvin, who has been tricked into coming to her cabin under the assumption it was that of a Spanish prostitute he was hoping to see. The Vivien Leigh of Gone with the Wind is gone, along with her youth and her husband Laurence Olivier. Much like her character, she is faced with middle age, and the natural (if politically incorrect) decline of actresses careers as they age.
Lee Marvin himself is strong, giving a stellar performance as a washed up redneck of a ballplayer interested now in only women and liquor. His confrontation with Vivien Leigh mentioned above is the height (or depth) of his character, as she unmercifully beats him to a pulp with one of her shoes.
At the close of the film everybody departs for the most part unchanged, showing that some things truly will never change. The last words on screen, like the first, are from Glocken,who asks the audience “What does this have to do with you? Nothing.”
Directed by Stanley Kramer, Ship of Fools is a really good film which deserves a bit better than is given today- it is surely a movie which would not be made in today’s climate. My only criticism is the length, which could have been cut a bit by omitting some or all of the Jenny and David story. Otherwise, there is a lot of meat on the bone for our consumption.