Directed By; Stanley Kramer
Written By: Abby Mann (Based on the novel by Katherine Anne Porter)
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, George Segal, Oscar Werner, Michael Dunn
As Hollywood’s perennial message man, if there is one thing as sure as death and taxes it is that Stanley Kramer will attempt to wring every possible ounce of ideology and pathos out of a script and onto the screen, and with Ship of Fools Kramer has plenty of wringing to do.
Working from Katherine Anne Porter’s novel of the same name, Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann juggle and weave through a labyrinth of troubled characters aboard an Ocean liner traveling from Mexico to Germany in 1933.
The film opens flippantly with dwarf Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn who might be the pick of a very strong bunch) breaking the fourth wall to set the scene, a scene populated by a diverse range of fools that perhaps even the viewer will be able to see themselves in. Carl is the only person fit to talk directly to the audience aboard the ship, his mind proving to be the clearest and most objective, his comments warranted as the ship represents a cross section of humanity’s darker tendencies. The film swivels through its ensemble, from a hypocritical ex-baseball player, to an anguished and unhinged woman amidst the calamity of age and fading beauty. From the ship’s doctor who constantly has his moralistic determination shaken by the inevitable evils of man, to a vulnerable and seemingly doomed countess. From an overly optimistic Jewish German, to a radical anti-Semite, blind and offensive in his politics. From an artist so impassioned by his work, to his lover who pleads for his attention. From the disheartened lowly working class who occupy the ship’s deck, to the misguided inhabitants of the first class. And from this assortment Kramer is able catapult into an equally diverse series of discussions, delving into regret, disillusionment, crisis of identity, art, love and, most prevalent of all with Nazi Germany looming, bigotry
Cyclically shifting from acts of hate, to faltering relationships, to characters on the brink of implosion, Kramer can’t help but adopt an air of self-importance in his handling of such relentlessly hefty ideas. The film slips into soap opera with its parade of damaged individuals and endless heavy handed heart aches and the ship is in constant threat of sinking thanks to the sheer volume of its concepts and their pretentious coating. It is however kept afloat by the director’s very clear passion for his characters and what they represent. Villainous though some of the personalities may be, the director never goes all in with his vilification of them. He respects them and would admirably rather show them, warts and all, as humans rather than as heinous caricatures, and this humanist sensibility spills over into his handling of the text’s ideologies. He treats his topics with such respect that their importance is impossible to underestimate, the director as ever wearing his heart gallantly on his sleeve.
At two and a half hours it sure seems like a lot of arduous listening, but it is undeniably well worth it, and with a universally on-song cast that also boasts Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, George Segal and Simone Signoret, it’s never as hard to listen to as it could be.