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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Ship of Fools (1965)

"There are practically a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do? Kill all of us?"
- Julius Lowenthal (Heinz Ruehmann)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: January 21, 2004

Stars: Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, José Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, José Greco, Michael Dunn, Charles Korvin, Heinz Ruehmann
Other Stars: Lilia Skala, Werner Klemperer
Director: Stanley Kramer

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:29m:22s
Release Date: December 02, 2003
UPC: 043396106321
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B+B- D

DVD Review

Think Grand Hotel on a cruise ship, and you've pretty much pigeonholed Ship of Fools. Big, bloated, and distinguished by a roster of top Hollywood stars, Stanley Kramer's mildly successful adaptation of Katherine Anne Porter's bestseller flirts with important issues as it navigates the sudsy waters of soap opera. Although no icebergs sink this entertaining, if overlong, personal drama, the film wades through its share of choppy seas as it juggles the various stories of its troubled, largely unlikable characters. Some strike our fancy, others test our patience, and, refreshingly, no disaster or monumental event ties everyone together. When the journey ends, the passengers disembark and disperse, continuing their foolish, ignorant lives. And the audience seemingly gains little after spending two-and-a-half hours in their presence.

Yet Ship of Fools is deceptively substantive, and forces one to look beneath its surface to uncover its unifying thread. Abby Mann's screenplay provides few insights into the behavior or motivations of the individual characters, but we soak up a great deal about their collective society. And the subtle undercurrent of fear, prejudice, suspicion, and arrogance pervading that society propels the film forward.

The time is 1932, and the ship—on a 26-day voyage between Vera Cruz, Mexico and Bremerhaven, Germany—represents the world in microcosm. The second-rate liner plays host to an array of narrow-minded, short-sighted, complacent, and naïve travelers so wrapped up in their own problems, the globe's rapidly changing face escapes their gaze. The insidious seeds of Nazism have recently begun to sprout, afflicting many of the ship's German passengers with xenophobia, yet most see Hitler's influence as fleeting and innocuous, a troubled nation's harmless diversion that will soon blow over. Even Lowenthal (Heinz Ruehmann), the German Jew who's banished from the captain's table and forced to sit alone with a similarly ostracized dwarf (Michael Dunn), balks at the notion of an impending threat. Sadly, such apathy and denial will hasten the Nazi ascension.

Other misfits aboard the vessel include Vivien Leigh as a bitter, patrician divorcée obsessed with her fading youth; Lee Marvin as a crass, drunken athlete and fierce womanizer; José Ferrer as a boorish, haughty anti-Semite; George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley (in only her second film) as passionate yet embattled lovers; and Simone Signoret as the declining, drug-addicted La Condesa, whose dependency sparks a fateful romance with the disillusioned, intellectual ship's doctor (Oskar Werner), a symbol of the old German regime kicked aside by Hitler.

Typical of ensemble pieces, every star is rewarded with one "big" scene, and most deliver the necessary goods. Leigh especially shines in what would be her final film. (She would die two years later from chronic tuberculosis at age 53.) Such knowledge adds a note of heartbreak and melancholy to her luminous performance, despite the fact that Mrs. Treadwell is somewhat of a retread role for the legendary actress, evoking elements of both Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and the title character in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.

Still, Leigh doesn't have the showiest part or contribute the film's best work. That honor goes to Signoret and Werner (both Oscar-nominated), whose moving and engrossing story offers a wrenching preview of the divided loyalties, twisted sense of duty, hopeless fatalism, and courage that would mark the ensuing war years.

Kramer employs the same quick-cutting and zoom-for-emphasis technique that distinguished his Oscar-winning Judgment at Nuremburg a few years earlier, and handles both ensemble and intimate scenes with assurance. Yet unfortunately, Ship of Fools often gets bogged down in trivial events and idle chatter, stretching its running time and diffusing its focus. Known throughout Hollywood as the king of so-called "message films," Kramer has been accused throughout his career of bludgeoning audiences with heavy social themes, but in Ship of Fools, the message is often so submerged it tends to get lost in the web of competing stories. As a result, we lose sight of the fact that the film contains far more depth than its surface melodrama might suggest.

Ship of Fools received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, but one wonders whether, in 1965, the relatively fresh memories of World War II lent the production a power and resonance it lacks today. Although its reputation remains intact, Ship of Fools feels very much like a patchwork film, composed of individual performances and plots of varying quality that never quite add up to the masterpiece we expect and desire.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: By 1965, most big-budget films received the widescreen treatment, but surprisingly, director Stanley Kramer shot Ship of Fools in the traditional 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and in black-and-white. The smaller framing preserves the drama's intimacy and Columbia's high-definition remastering nicely sharpens up the image, even though some print defects occasionally intrude. Blacks are inky and rich, producing good contrast, and varied gray levels add texture and depth. Slight grain is evident, but compliments the film's period flavor.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is devoid of any annoying pops or scratches, with dialogue always clean and understandable, despite the characters' numerous and varied accents. Ernest Gold's subtle score remains firmly in the background, but would benefit from heightened fidelity.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Japanese with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring All the King's Men, Born Yesterday, From Here to Eternity
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:25m:31s

Extras Review: Three trailers for other Columbia classics comprise the negligent disc supplements.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Ship of Fools surreptitiously weaves its subtle, yet potent, message into the fiber of Stanley Kramer's glossy, all-star production, but never achieves the level of impact we crave. Top-notch performances from Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner keep the film afloat and on course, while Columbia's high-definition transfer enhances the Oscar-winning art direction and cinematography. Fans of fine acting, history, and classic sagas will find themselves entertained and edified, as long as they keep their expectations in check.


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