1965

Film #250: Ship of Fools (1965)

Our next two posts oddly both share a similar theme in so much as they are both set on boats. We start with Ship of Fools, which is based on a popular novel and is set aboard a German ocean liner.


The film focuses on a plethora of characters aboard a liner that has departed from Mexico and is on the way to Germany. Several to camera monologues are performed by a dwarf named Glocken, who is regularly ostracised on the ship and spends his dinner times eating with the Jewish passengers. The majority of the film is seen through the eyes of the ship’s Doctor Schumann, who is about depart the vessel as he has found out he is dying from a heart condition. Schumann is drawn to one of the latest passengers – a drug-addicted countessa from Spain who is bound for a Mexican jail. Schumann and La Contessa fall in love but both realise that their courtship cannot last. Aging divorcee Mary Treadwell is attempting to glam herself up but she discovers she isn’t as young as she used to be, something former baseball player Bill Denny is also learning. Meanwhile younger couple Jenny and David are having issues as he feels like she doesn’t appreciate his art and doesn’t have as many ideas and beliefs as him. Finally we meet Rieber, a bigoted businessman who is a member of the Nazi Party and perfectly represents the feeling of some Germans in 1933.

I personally found Ship of Fools to be a mixed bag of stories, some that I liked more than others. I felt the relationship between Schumman and the countessa was perfectly played by Oskar Werner and Simone Signoret. This sort of tragic love story was at the heart of the film and I would’ve preferred to have seen the film focus on just that. Vivien Leigh, in her final film role, is brilliant as Mary a former beauty who is losing her looks, and I really liked the scene in which she put on make-up in front of the mirror while talking to herself. But I found other stories to be less engaging especially the one focusing on Jose Ferrer’s Rieber and his ostracising of several of his fellow passengers. One of the better performances from me came from Michael Dunn who, as Glocken, has to narrate the story straight to the audience. The film certainly looked impressive, with the flamenco scene in particular catching my eye, but there’s only so much you can do with a film set almost completely on a boat. Given the cast, I would’ve thought that Ship of Fools could’ve been better but there was just far too much going on. While I’m not surprised that it received a ton of Oscar nominations, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would. I also found myself comparing it to previous Best Picture Winner Grand Hotel which this bore more than a striking resemblance to.

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