Ship of Fools (1965)


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 a prominent ensemble cast, including Vivien Leigh (in her final film role, she died on 08 July 1967 as the age of 53), Simone Signoret, José Ferrer and Lee Marvin. It also marked Christiane Schmidtmer’s first US production.


The action of the film takes place almost entirely on board a passenger ship in 1933, between Veracruz Mexico and Bremerhaven, Germany. Most of the scenes unfold on the First Class deck or among the upper middle-class passengers, but the ship is carrying 600 displaced workers, far more than the ship is certified to carry and they are assigned to squalid conditions in steerage. They are all being deported back to Spain by the order of the Cuban dictator, Machado. Many passengers bound for Nazi Germany are happy, 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 reluctantly accommodates with prescriptions. She is being transported to a Spanish prison on the Canary Island of 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 conceals having a heart condition. 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. 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 Glocken regarding tactical accommodation to the Nazis from people like Rieber, stating that Germany has been good for the Jews and the Jews have been good for Germany, “We are Germans first and Jews second…There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill all of us?”

Others aboard include an American couple, David and Jenny. Jenny is infatuated with David, who is disconsolate at his lack of success as a socially committed artist and feels stifled by Jenny’s needy dependence. Mary Treadwall, a divorcée, drinks and flirts. She is on a quest to recapture her lost youth while in Paris, but the men who take an interest in her she rejects as unworthy. Bill Tenny is a former baseball player with a drinking 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, while 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 arrives in Spain where the displaced workers from steerage disembark. Here, after an emotionally painful farewell with the doctor, La Condesa is forced to exit the ship under Civil Guard escort. Upon arrival in Germany, the remaining passengers depart the ship. The doctor dies before the ship reaches Bremerhaven and his body is unloaded 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 passenger to leave the ‘Ship of Fools’ is Glocken, who speaks directly to camera, as he did 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?” (meaning the passengers). “Nothing” he adds and exits into the crowd.


  • Vivien Leigh as Mary Treadwell.
  • José Ferrer as Siegfried Rieber.
  • Lee Marvin as Bill Tenny.
  • Simone Signoret as La Condesa, “the countess”.
  • Oskar Werner as Dr. Wilhelm “Willi” Schumann.
  • Elizabeth Ashley as Jenny Brown.
  • George Segal as David Scott.
  • José Greco as Pepe.
  • Michael Dunn as Carl Glocken.
  • Charles Korvin as Captain Thiele.
  • Heinz Rühmann (credited as “Heinz Ruehmann”) as Julius Lowenthal.
  • Lilia Skala as Frau Hutten.
  • Barbara Luna as Amparo.
  • Christiane Schmidtmer as Lizzi Spokenkieker.
  • Alf Kjellin as Freytag.
  • Werner Klemperer as Lieutenant Huebner.
  • John Wengraf as Graf.
  • Olga Fabian as Frau Schmitt.
  • Gila Golan as Elsa.
  • Oscar Beregi as Lutz.
  • Stanley Adams as Hutten.
  • Karen Verne as Frau Lutz.
  • Charles de Vries as Johann.
  • Lydia Torea as Pastora.
  • Henry Calvin as Gregorio (Fat man).
  • David Renard as Woodcarver.


Katherine Anne Porter’s novel Ship of Fools was published in 1962. 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.

Producer David O. Selznick wanted to purchase the film rights, but United Artists owned the property and 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. The film proved to be her last film and in later recounting her work, Kramer 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.” 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. In particular, during one scene shoot, she hit Lee Marvin so hard with a spiked shoe, that it bruised his face.

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


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.

The film was banned in Franco’s Spain because of its anti-fascist stance.

Awards and Honours

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. Marvin won the 1966 National Board of Review Award for male actors, while Werner received the 1965 New York Film Critics Circle Award.

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. Other nominations included Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Bill Thomas), Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

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

  • 2005: AFI’s 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated.


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. The film was later reissued in widescreen with supplements in a Stanley Kramer box set from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Currently, the film is also available in a budget-priced two-disc, four-movie collection DVD licensed from Sony to Mill Creek Entertainment. 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.


  • Ship of Fools, which was based on Katherine Anne Porter’s 1962 novel of the same name, 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, 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.
  • Initially, director Stanley Kramer considered filming aboard an actual ship, but that was determined to be too difficult.
    • A ship set was built at Columbia studios, and a second unit filmed backgrounds at sea. The ship set extended over four sound stages and had four levels.
    • Special effects were done at Paramount studios, so the whole set was broken down into 44 sections, each measuring 16 x 12 feet, and trucked to Paramount according to an article in the 2 August 1964 edition of the Los Angeles Times.
  • Director Stanley Kramer carefully photographed Vivien Leigh in a gentle soft focus throughout the film, leading up to her climactic Charleston sequence, which he then shot in a cold, unforgiving sharp focus.
  • Oskar Werner and José Ferrer would make a similar film 11 years later.
    • Voyage of the Damned (1976) also was about a boatload of refugees heading back to Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War.
    • It would prove to be Werner’s final film.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Stanley Kramer.
  • Producer(s):
    • Stanley Kramer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Katherine Anne Porter … (based on “Ship of Fools”).
    • Abby Mann … (screenplay by).
  • Music:
    • Ernest Gold.
  • Cinematography:
    • Ernest Laszlo … director of photography.
  • Editor(s):
    • Robert C. Jones.
  • Production:
    • Stanley Kramer Productions.
  • Distributor(s):
    • Columbia Pictures (1965) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Columbia Pictures Corporation (1965) (UK) (theatrical).
    • Columbia (1965) (Argentina) (theatrical).
    • Columbia Film (1965) (Sweden) (theatrical).
    • Columbia Films (1965) (France) (theatrical).
    • Kamera (1965) (Norway) (theatrical).
    • Columbia-Bavaria Filmgesellschaft m.b.H. (1965) (West Germany) (theatrical).
    • Columbia Films S. A. (1966) (Mexico) (theatrical).
    • American Broadcasting Company (ABC) (1968) (USA) (TV).
    • Mill Creek Entertainment (2012) (USA) (DVD).
    • Winkler Film (2013) (Germany) (DVD).
    • Powerhouse Films (2018) (UK) (Blu-ray) (Limited Edition).
    • Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment (2003) (USA) (DVD).
    • RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video (USA) (video).
    • Sony Pictures Television (USA) (TV).
  • Release Date: 28 July 1965 (New York City).
  • Rating: 12.
  • Running Time: 159 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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