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Customer Review

on June 28, 2002
It's a cliche to say it, but it's true - they don't make movies like this anymore. Ship of Fools is an intelligent film populated by a variety of beautifully drawn characters portrayed by a cast of actors who know the subtle art of making their interior feelings exterior. Abby Mann's splendid script is based on a book by Katherine Anne Porter and makes some of the usual concessions of adaptations - the hunchback in the book becomes a dwarf in the film, for instance. But the themes and passions remain intact - and the characters and their emotions are as involving now as they were when the film was first released back in the sixties.
Often called a kind of floating Grand Hotel, the ship of the title is a second rate tub taking its crew and disparate collection of passengers from Mexico to Germany in the uncertain days of the mid-1930's. The impending doom of World War II and the Holocaust loom large for everybody to see, but the mostly self-centered characters remain oblivious to all the omens. Tension and passion are always in the air, but the superb dialogue leaves much of it in the subtext.
Of course, any all-star enterprise will succeed or fail on the strength of its performances and Ship of Fools provides more than a single film's worth of acting greatness. Vivien Leigh, at the end of her rollercoaster career, richly deserves her top billing. Her aging coquette may have hints of both Scarlett O'Hara and Blanche Dubois, but she makes her character here equally memorable. Lee Marvin, as a washed-up baseball player, also proves that he could really act when he wanted to. And Jose Ferrer is gloriously over the top as the German businessman eager to embrace Nazi ideals. German actor Heinz Ruehmann is quietly effective and touching as a permanently cheerful Jew ("There are a million Jews in Germany," he says at one point. "What are they going to do - kill us all?"). Michael Dunn as the narrating dwarf maintains a nice air of cynicism. Even the famous flamenco dancer Jose Greco is outstanding in a surprisingly unflattering role.
Best of all, however, are Oskar Werner as the ship's disillusioned doctor and Simone Signoret as a drug-addicted political prisoner on her way to an uncertain future. These two - Werner in particular - bring screen acting to new heights and, in their scenes together, make the audience genuinely care for them. I never cease to be thrilled by Werner's performance.
On the minus side are George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley - two actors who we all know are capable of being much better. Their cardboard characters and trite dialogue seem to belong to another film. Possibly this pair of bohemians were supposed to appeal to the younger members of the audience. Compared to the rest of the cast, they are an embarrassment and a certain impatience sets in whenever they are on the screen.
The film's views and messages may now seem a bit obvious but they are presented with such superlative craftsmanship that you easily forgive a bit of occasional creakiness. There are many wonderful moments to compensate. Such as when Signoret asks Werner if he is happy. Werner smiles slightly, shrugs and replies: "Who is happy?" with such a wealth of world weariness and resignation that he seems to have crammed an entire life (and acting master class) into those few words. Great films, someone once said, are made up of memorable moments. Ship of Fools has more than its fair share of them.
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