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Ship of Fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer 1965)

This was the nom I was most looking forward to watching...I'd seen it some 15 years ago but remembered nothing about it. I knew it had an all star cast and was directed by one of the great 20th century directors Stanley Kramer (The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Inherit the Wind, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Kramer directed one of my all time top films, his tour de force Judgement at Nuremberg. So I expected big things from Ship of Fools especially as it features three of my favorite actors: Lee Marvin, Jose Ferrer and Vivian Leigh.

I hate to say this but I was underwhelmed and found the movie middle of the road. I think the problem stems from Abby Mann's screenplay of Katherine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools. When a screenplay is adapted from a lengthy and complex multi-character novel the screenwriter has literally two choices: They can include the bulk of the characters by skeletonizing the characters down to just a few core characteristics thus removing most of their story arcs and nuances, so as to save on film runtime...Or the screenwriter can cut mercilessly until the side characters are removed from the movie's screenplay allowing the main characters to be more fully explored in the shorter time that movies offer. Ship of Fools does the former and retains all the characters albeit in very reduced story form.

It's that lack of character exploration that disappointment me the most. Consider the rich uncle who has left all of his money to his young poor nephew with one catch, the nephew doesn't get the money until the uncle has died. But we learn nothing of their relationship other than that single fact. Then there's Vivian Leigh, we're directly told by another character she's an aging coquette who's looking for a kind of love she'll never find. But how about letting the character's actions divulge this to us instead of having the film directly tells us through a monologue...That's what happens when a novel has the characters skeletonized down to mere whispers of their former selves. It would've been better to cut the secondary story of the Spanish labors who board the ship in Cuba. Their story could be interesting but not in the short time the movie has when one considers all the numerous characters that the movie includes.

Pros: There are some real strengths in Ship of Fools. Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner who were both Oscar nominated for best actor/actress for their work on this film. Their acting and their scenes together are worth the 'price of admission'. The way they are written says much without telling us their whole story, we 'get them' through their emotions and actions, that elevates the movie and was greatly appreciated by me.

The scenes with the Jewish man (Heinz Rühmann) and the dwarf who also narrates the film (Michael Dunn) were among my favorites. Those two character added needed humanity and warmth. They felt alive, they felt real as opposed to some of the other characters who seemed like contrived archetypes. I did like Jose Ferrer's likable but loudmouth bigot. The funny thing is he doesn't even know he's a bigot and that is a bit of clever writing.

Strangely both Vivan Leigh who I adore and Lee Marvin who's just plain cool both disappointed me in this film. I don't blame the actors as I know they have the chops, I blame the script.

Despite the overly long runtime and the unevenness of the movie I am very glad to have watched this and find myself wanting to explore more of Stanley Kramer's filmography.