Stanley Kramer liked to make really long movies about really important subjects—the end of the world, the Nuremberg trials, interracial marriage. It was inevitable that he would tackle the rise of Nazism in there somewhere, and this Grand Hotel-formula star-a-thon is it. Actually, Ship of Fools (1965) is one of Kramer’s better films. That’s not to say that it probably didn’t need to be two-and-a-half hours long. And it’s not to say that it’s lacking in a degree of self-important pretentiousness—but there’s good pretentiousness as well as bad, and the tone here is probably just about right for Kramer’s purpose.
Kramer was generally drawn to stories with a large number of characters, and certainly this is no exception. However, utilizing the Grand Hotel (1932) approach—confining those characters to a single space—makes Ship of Fools feel more unified than most of his films. Compare it to his preposterously overlong, character- (or caricature-) stuffed comedy, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), and Ship of Fools seems like a model of restraint, taste and judgment. In fact, its single greatest flaw is probably that the hairstyles—especially on the women—look for all the world like the year in which the film was made and not the year (1933) in which it’s supposedly taking place.
The idea of course is to create a kind of pressure cooker, where the truth beneath the various civilized facades can’t help but come out. As an idea, it’s not unreasonable. The concept of a group of people all with one kind of secret or another propelled Grand Hotel just fine and worked even better in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932). Here it sometimes works, but there’s an inherent problem with the approach taken by Kramer and screenwriter Abby Mann (and presumably it can be traced to Katherine Anne Porter’s source novel) in that the characters tend to be very transparent. The movie’s not very old before we already know that the dwarf Glocklen (Michael Dunn) is a sardonic observer, that Rieber (Jose Ferrer) is a raging anti-Semitic German representing what’s about to happen, that Lowenthal (Heinze Ruehumann) is a good-hearted Jew who cannot conceive that the German people are incapable of being represented by Rieber etc. It makes for OK drama all the same, but it’s all on the heavy-handed side. Well, subtlety was never Kramer’s strong suit.
While the film never attains the level of importance Kramer clearly meant it to have, it’s nonetheless a handsome production, and the acting is very good. Anyway, where else are you going to find Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, George Segal, Jose Ferrer and Michael Dunn all packed into one movie? That’s probably reason enough to check it out.