Ship of Fools is maddeningly difficult to critique. How can a film that beats you over the head with its message also be quiet and sweetly wistful? How can this ship of fools – nothing, on the surface, but a ship of tired archetypes – shock you with their authenticity? How can a film that is dull for one hundred and forty minutes move you so in its final ten? I suppose one could simply call it uneven and leave it at that. Yet, the pillars at either extreme are exactly that: extreme. When Ship of Fools is bad, it can be infuriatingly bad; when it is good though, it can stand among the very best that cinema ever has given us.
A particularly memorable instance of the latter Ship of Fools‘s title sequence. One by one the faces of our all-star cast appear before us: Vivien Leigh, in her final film appearance; Simone Signoret; José Ferrer; Lee Marvin. Their portraits, and those of the many others that voyage on the allegorical Ship of Fools, come together to create the silhouette of an ocean liner. All the while, Ernest Gold’s score flows and soars like the waves upon which they sail. Audio and visual combine seamlessly to create one of the most striking title sequences that have ever graced the big screen.
Indeed, the adjectives striking and stylish could well be applied to other facets of the film. Cinematographically, the decision to film the picture in black and white lends Ship of Fools a starkness and a peculiar unreality inherent to monochrome. These qualities confer not only great beauty to the images, but also a mood that encapsulates perfectly that of the central tale: a literal and metaphorical journey towards a world gone mad. However, Kramer’s preoccupation with style in the disciplines of makeup and costume design (or, equally, a lack thereof) is costly. The action takes place on a German liner sailing toward Bremerhaven in 1933, but you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at the characters. Historical authenticity is something classic Hollywood has always struggled with (or, perhaps more accurately, just didn’t care a whit about). Of course, the damage done is only minimal when the picture in question is simply a storybook romance; in the case of Ship of Fools though, the bouffants, the winged eyeliner, and the wildly swish attire do much to detract from the serious themes at hand. Mute the thing and you’d be sure you were watching some 1960s travelogue.
Good thing we can hear what our characters have to say… right? At this point, we should probably note that Ship of Fools began life as the “unwieldy” and “enormous” brainchild of Katherine Anne Porter (in the lady’s own words). From there, the novel fell into the hands of Stanley Kramer and Abby Mann – two names synonymous with the “message film”. At some moments, the strength of insight, the wit, and the subtle horror (in the best possible sense) of which all our capable is readily apparent. At others, the threesome reveal just how galling they can be (and galling they can certainly be – bearing in mind that this Mr Mann was the same fellow who accepted his Oscar “on behalf of all intellectuals everywhere”).
In one immortal sequence, we see a wealthy older couple fawning over their beloved pooch Bébé. When some young ruffians throw the dog overboard, a gentle woodcarver in steerage jumps into the water and saves the poor thing. Frau something-or-other fusses over the dog when she’s returned, taking little notice when Bébé’s rescuer dies as a result of his ordeal. We are encouraged to grieve for the noble pleb, and to condemn the callous woman from our own position of Eminent Virtue. Prescient peasants stand in contrast to phlumphering grandees; upstanding gentlemen against vapid Nazis. All the while, our worldly narrator Glocken stands between us and the ship of fools – allowing a happy distance between the audience and the true terror which the film seeks to unmask.
There is, however, one thing that saves Ship of Fools: its illustrious ensemble cast. In 1965, many critics noted the similarities between Ship of Fools and its Pre-code predecessor Grand Hotel, with some even dubbing it a “Grand Hotel afloat”. Grand Hotel was regarded as the pinnacle of Hollywood wit and sophistication to which Ship of Fools also plainly aspired. Grand Hotel foreshadowed the war to which Ship of Fools looked back in hindsight. Finally, and perhaps most obviously, both films could just about boast of more stars than there were in heaven. Nevertheless, in one small – yet very consequential way – the two films diverge. Grand Hotel, produced during the height of classical Hollywood cinema, gives us its movie stars exactly as they live in our imagination – one could even argue that it positively defines the personas of stars like Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Ship of Fools receives these personas with open arms – and turns them on their head. It is this phenomenon that gives rise to the most memorable scenes of the film.
In one wonderfully orchestrated episode, Lee Marvin – the perennial tough guy – reflects bitterly on a sporting career that never lived up to its potential. In another, Simone Signoret – the once devastating temptress whose face and figure is now heavy with age – lends great honesty and tenderness to an otherwise inane shipboard romance. The most harrowing vignette of all is one of Vivien Leigh’s – playing what was to be her final role before her death in 1967.
Mrs Mary Treadwell, a divorcée of Murray Hill, Virginia, sits in front of the mirror. Treadwell had earlier admitted that all she’d really wanted was a useful life and someone who would love her throughout it. Now, however, it is clear that she has never even been close to achieving this dream. She paints her face extravagantly – two swoops for the eyebrows, black smudges for the eyelids – as if a vigorous coat of paint will restore her youth and give her a chance to relive her life. All the while, the powers that be seem bent on preventing this scene’s success: Leigh’s makeup is already unusually heavy – in keeping with that anachronistic 1960s style – and dilutes the power of her act. (There’s also this Charleston dance sequence in the lead-up which I frankly just didn’t understand.) Suddenly though, Leigh flashes a smile into the mirror – and the effect of this single motion is tremendous. The smile is familiarly coquettish – uncannily like that of Scarlet O’Hara at first. But it lingers a shade too long; just as quickly, it becomes sad and strained – almost manic. In this moment, we understand completely the life of Mary Treadwell – for it is only a doleful mirror image of her portrayer.
The execution of these individual episodes is sometimes close to perfection. Yet a film must somehow be more than a sum of its parts – it must build from one scene to another and to the next. Ship of Fools almost completely shies away from this crucial task. That is, until its very last scene. Ship of Fool’s ending is not tragic in the classical sense; we are not greeted with a satisfying wave of catharsis at its end, but rather a deep and unshakeable feeling of dread. One by one, our parade of fools disembark their ship. They go about their lives once more, oblivious to their own personal inadequacies, and oblivious to the terror that will soon grip the whole world. A joyous and triumphant march plays in the background. Ship of Fools may be tiresome in countless ways, but in its foremost goal – to convey the tenor of fear and evil that suddenly struck when we weren’t listening – it ultimately succeeds.