Ship of Fools (film)

Ship of Fools is a 1965 drama film directed by Stanley Kramer, set on board an ocean liner bound to Germany from Mexico in 1933. It stars Vivien Leigh (in her final film role), Simone Signoret, José Ferrer and Lee Marvin. It also marked Christiane Schmidtmer's first U.S. production.

Ship of Fools
DVD cover
Directed byStanley Kramer
Produced byStanley Kramer
Written byAbby Mann
Based onShip of Fools
1962 novel
by Katherine Anne Porter
StarringVivien Leigh
José Ferrer
Lee Marvin
Simone Signoret
Music byErnest Gold
CinematographyErnest Laszlo
Edited byRobert C. Jones
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • July 29, 1965 (1965-07-29)
Running time
149 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,500,000 (rentals)Anticipated rentals accruing distributors in North America[1]

Ship of Fools was highly regarded, with reviewers praising the cast's performance but also noted the movie's overlong (for 1965) runtime. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1966, including for Best Picture, Best Actor for Oskar Werner and Best Actress for Simone Signoret, and Best Supporting Actor for Michael Dunn; it won for Best Art Direction, Black-and-White and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.


The action of the film takes place entirely on board between Veracruz, Mexico, and Bremerhaven, Germany. Most of the scenes take place on the First Class deck, among the upper middle-class passengers there; but the ship is carrying 600 displaced workers, far more than the ship is certified to carry, in squalid conditions in steerage. They are being deported from Cuba back to Spain by the Cuban Machado dictatorship.

Some passengers are happy to be bound for Nazi Germany, some are apprehensive, while others downplay the significance of fascist politics.

The ship's medic, Dr. Schumann, takes a special interest in La Condesa, a countess from Cuba who has an opiate addiction which he accommodates with prescriptions. She is being transported to a Spanish prison on Tenerife. Her sense of doom is contrasted with the doctor's initial determination to fight the forces of oppression, embodied by his insistence that the people in steerage be treated like human beings rather than cargo. The doctor himself has a secret heart condition, and his sympathy for the countess soon evolves into love, though both realise it is a hopeless passion.

Selected passengers are invited to dine each night at the captain's table. There, some are amused and others offended by the anti-Semitic rants of a German businessman named Rieber who – though married – begins an affair with Lizzi. The Jewish Lowenthal is not invited and is seated at a side table with a dwarf named Glocken, and the two bond over their sense of social exclusion. Later a passenger named Freytag is shocked to find himself blackballed from the Captain's Table when Rieber learns Freytag's wife is Jewish and after an angry public outburst he too is re-seated at the side table. Here Lowenthal counsels tactical accommodation to the Nazi views of Rieber saying "Germany has been good for the Jews and the Jews have been good for Germany .... Anyway what are they going to do, kill us all?"

Others aboard include an American couple, David and Jenny; she is infatuated with David who is disconsolate at his lack of success as a socially committed artist and stifled by Jenny's needy dependence. A divorcée, Mary Treadwell, drinks and flirts, on a quest to recapture her lost youth in Paris but rejects the men who take an interest in her as unworthy. Bill Tenny is a former baseball player with a drink problem, angry the way his career never took off. Passengers are entertained nightly by a troupe of flamenco musicians and dancers, whose leader pimps the women in the troupe; other passengers regularly drink themselves to oblivion. One young heir to a fortune loses his virginity to one of the flamenco dancers, who treats him with gentleness.

The ship stops in Spain where the displaced workers leave and La Condesa disembarks, after a painful farewell with the Doctor, under Spanish police escort.

Upon the arrival in Germany, the remaining passengers leave the ship. The doctor dies before the ship reaches Bremerhaven and leaves it in a coffin. At the disembarkation, which seems like a parade, most characters show they will behave as though it is 'business as usual'.

The last to leave the 'Ship of Fools' is Glocken, who speaks directly to camera, as he has done in the opening minutes of the film. Glocken asks the film's audience if they are thinking "what has all this to do with us?" (in this case , the passengers): "Nothing" he adds, and leaves into the crowds.



Katherine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools was published in 1962.[3] The essayist and short story author's only novel was the culmination of a 20-year-long project that was based on her reminiscences of a 1931 ocean cruise she had taken from Veracruz to Germany.[Note 1][5]

Producer David O. Selznick wanted the film rights but United Artists, which owned the property, demanded $400,000. The novel was adapted for film by Abby Mann. Producer and director Stanley Kramer who ended up with the film, planned to star Vivien Leigh but was initially unaware of her fragile mental and physical health.[Note 2] The film proved to be her last film and in later recounting her work, he remembered her courage in taking on the difficult role, "She was ill, and the courage to go ahead, the courage to make the film-was almost unbelievable."[5] Leigh's performance was tinged by paranoia and resulted in outbursts that marred her relationship with other actors, although both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin were sympathetic and understanding.[7] In one unusual instance, she hit Marvin so hard with a spiked shoe, that it marked his face.[8]

At the conclusion of filming, screenwriter Mann reportedly threw a party for almost the entire cast and crew; omitted was Gila Golan, whose performance Mann was reputedly not happy with.[9]


Although well received by audiences, Ship of Fools was looked at by some reviewers as a Grand Hotel (1932) afloat, a film which had often been imitated. "Preachy and melodramatic" was another criticism, although the cast was universally praised.[10]

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times saw the film as much more, "Stanley Kramer has fetched a powerful, ironic film ... there is such wealth of reflection upon the human condition in Ship of Fools and so subtle an orchestration of the elements of love and hate, achieved through an expert compression of the novel by Mr. Kramer and his script writer, Abby Mann, that it is really not fair to tag it with the label of any previous film. It has its own quiet distinction in the way it illuminates a theme." He also singled out the work of Oskar Werner.[11] In a similar vein, Variety noted, "Director-producer Stanley Kramer and scenarist Abby Mann have distilled the essence of Katherine Anne Porter's bulky novel in a film that appeals to the intellect and the emotions."[12]

The film was banned in Franco's Spain because of its anti-fascist stance.[13]

Awards and honors

Ship of Fools won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Robert Clatworthy, Joseph Kish) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Ernest Laszlo). Leigh won the L'Étoile de Cristal for her performance in a leading role.[14][Note 3] Marvin won the 1966 National Board of Review Award for male actors, while Werner received the 1965 New York Film Critics Circle Award.[15]

The film was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Oskar Werner), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Dunn) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Simone Signoret). In addition, the leading and supporting cast was nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and Golden Globe Awards.[15] Other nominations included Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Bill Thomas), Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.[16]

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


The film has been issued on VHS, laserdisc and DVD. The film's standalone DVD release is an open matte 1.33:1 transfer with no supplements.[18] The film was later reissued in widescreen with supplements in a Stanley Kramer box set from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.[Note 4] Currently, the film is also available in a budget-priced two-disc, four-movie collection DVD licensed from Sony to Mill Creek Entertainment.[Note 5] All four films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios and are anamorphically enhanced. The film has been released on Blu-ray in a double feature pack with the film Lilith via Mill Creek.[19]

See also



  1. Porter also wrote three novellas or short novels.[4]
  2. At one point in the pre-production, Katharine Hepburn was considered for the role of Mary Treadwell, but dropped out and was replaced by Leigh.[6]
  3. L'Étoile de Cristal was the French equivalent of the Oscar.[14]
  4. The Sony re-release was bundled with The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, The Wild One, The Member of the Wedding, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
  5. Other films that are included are Bobby Deerfield, Baby the Rain Must Fall and The Chase.


  1. "Top Grossers of 1965". Variety, January 5, 1966, p. 36.
  2. Bean 2013, p. 155.
  3. Porter 1984, p. 3.
  4. Porter 1979, Back cover.
  5. Steinberg, Jay. "Articles: Ship of Fools." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: October 10, 2013.
  6. Andersen 1997, pp. 552–553.
  7. David 1995, p. 46.
  8. Walker 1987, p. 281.
  10. Epstein 2013, p. 149.
  11. Crowther, Bosley. "Review: Ship of Fools". The New York Times, July 29, 1965. Retrieved: October 10, 2013.
  12. "Review: Ship of Fools". Variety, December 31, 1964. Retrieved: October 10, 2013.
  13. "Huelva homenaje hoy a los hermanos Salao, Justo y Carmen"
  14. Bean 2013, p. 279.
  15. "Awards: Ship of Fools (1965)." IMDb.Retrieved: October 11, 2013.
  16. "Awards: Ship of Fools". The New York Times. Retrieved: October 10, 2013.
  17. "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-06.
  18. Krauss, David. "Columbia TriStar Home Video presents Ship of Fools (1965).", January 21, 2004. Retrieved: October 11, 2013.
  19. "ship of Fools DVD". CD Universe. Retrieved: October 11, 2013.


  • Andersen, Christopher P. An Affair to Remember: The Remarkable Love Story of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Glasgow, Scotland: William Morrow & Co., 1997. ISBN 978-0-68815-311-3.
  • Bean, Kendra. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Running Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-76245-099-2.
  • David, Catherine. Simone Signoret. New York: Overlook Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-87951-581-2.
  • Epstein, Dwayne. Lee Marvin: Point Blank. Tucson, Arizona: Schaffner Press, Inc., 2013. ISBN 978-1-93618-240-4.
  • Porter, Katherine Anne. The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979. ISBN 978-1-56188-767-5.
  • Porter, Katherine Anne. Ship of Fools. New York: Back Bay Books, Revised edition 1984. ISBN 978-0-31671-390-0.
  • Walker, Alexander. Vivien: The Life of Vivien Leigh. New York: Grove Press, 1987. ISBN 0-8021-3259-6.
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