Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
United Kingdom/USA, 1976. Associated General Films, Robert Fryer Production, ITC Entertainment. Screenplay by Steve Shagan, David Butler, based on the book by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts. Cinematography by Billy Williams. Produced by Robert Fryer. Music by Lalo Schifrin. Production Design by Wilfred Shingleton. Costume Design by Phyllis Dalton. Film Editing by Tom Priestley. Academy Awards 1976. Golden Globe Awards 1976.
The all-star disaster movies that were popular in the seventies are combined with the respectability of historical epics for what is a far more successful combination than you would imagine. Faye Dunaway heads an enormous cast as one of a thousand Jewish passengers aboard a luxury cruiseliner in 1939 headed from Hamburg to Havana, with all those aboard believing that they will be accepted in Cuba as refugees after the anti-Semitic Nazi government has allowed them to leave as a gesture of goodwill. What no one aboard the ship knows is that Cuba has no intention of allowing them in, and that it’s all part of Germany’s much darker plan for its Jewish citizens in the coming years. Steve Shagan and David Butler’s screenplay, adapted from the novel by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, moves between the individual dramas of passengers, including Dunaway’s tense (if vague) relationship with her husband Oskar Werner, Lee Grant and Sam Wanamaker plunged in anxious paranoia, their daughter Lynne Frederick‘s romance with the captain’s steward Malcolm McDowell, Jonathan Pryce and Paul Koslo as teachers escaping persecution, and the drama on the bridge with the moral but politically conflicted captain (Max Von Sydow) versus the party supervisor (Helmut Griem) who is there to make sure that everyone is towing the Nazi line. The story leaves the boat periodically to head to Havana, where various suited politicians and diplomats argue the possibility of letting the passengers into the country as anti-Semitism rises sharply in the western hemisphere and makes the idea of a ship of refugees unappealing everywhere; this makes for hard work for Ben Gazzara, playing a representative for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as he travels the world trying to find a safe haven for the ship’s passengers. Dunaway’s role is far too inconsequential and she’s given top billing more because of her status than because of any particular reliance that the film has on her, the weight of it belongs more to Von Sydow overall, but the cut-glass perfection of her image and the moral resolve she brings to her scenes as a woman who cannot be caught unawares is a nice contrast to the other rich characterizations that the film provides, including Grant as a woman on the verge of madness and Wendy Hiller contributing fine work as an elderly woman accompanying her gravely ill husband. Other cast members are shown to good effect as well, Julie Harris as a woman hoping to reunite with her children in Cuba, Maria Schell unaware that her daughter (Katharine Ross) has become a sex worker in Havana, and a very young Anthony Higgins who pays dearly for his questioning Griem’s bullying authority. Taking Ship of Fools and giving it the glamorous soap opera treatment should result in something far more disastrous, witness the boredom of The Hindenburg a year earlier, but putting romance novel plots against the backdrop of the destruction of Jewish life in Europe doesn’t cheapen the film as either history or drama, there’s something sweet and tragic about seeing these engaging characters madly trying to live all of life’s sweetest indulgences as they head to their doom.