Noah-like, Stanley Kramer has packed a cross section of humanity aboard his microcosmic Ship of Fools. There's a washed-up baseball player, a Nazi, a German Jew, a countess, two emancipated American women, an artist, 600 starving Spaniards, and a dwarf.
Somehow, Kramer is worried that we'll miss the point (the world is a bum place). So he chucks away any thoughts of character development and splices together two-and-a-half hours of drunken tete-a-tetes to make sure that everyone on board gets a chance to bemoan the futility of it all.
The result is an embarrassing overdose of social criticism, a whole slew of caricatures, and a flimsy stab or two at continuity--like the dwarf, who made this trip to help us distinguish between the good guys and the bad. (Those who say' "That dwarf has real feelings, the same as any regularized person," are the good guys. Those who say, "That dwarf is nothing but an old dwarf," are the bad guys.)
The same people who don't like the dwarf don't like Lowenthal, the Jew. This ship, you see, is German, and the year is 1933. Tender-hearted Lowenthal laughs off the discourtesy of his shipmates: "There are nearly a million Jews in Germany. What are they going to do, kill all of us?" At which point Kramer stops the music, ends the conversation, and gives the audience ample time to gasp.
Then there are those 600 Spanish laborers, crossing the Atlantic on an open deck. A particularly nice one drowns after leaping overboard to save a dog. Some of the passengers (the same group again) are overjoyed that the dog has been recovered. The message: some people think dogs are more important than impoverished Spaniards.
Three characters rise above this muck: Oskar Werner, the ship's doctor; Lee Marvin, the baseball player; and Simone Signoret, the countess. Simone has lived a lot and squints all the time because she finds it too painful to look wide-eyed at the world. At the same time, she is as cuddlesome as can be. When Werner says, "Some-times you're so bitter; then you're soft and warm as a child," she groans, "I'm just a woman."
Marvin is the only character who is admittedly a joke. He unabashedly looks up skirts and licks his chops whenever anything with two legs and long hair strolls his way.
But except for Marvin's gags, the movie is pretty dull. The Nazi overtones are crushing. There no surprises. The most exciting moment comes near the end when the doctor's coffin is being wheeled away. It almost topples off the cart.
Perhaps a ship does not provide the best opportunities for photographic miracles. But Kramer, obsessed with his confessional technique, finds it too convenient to plop one tense black-and-white face in the middle of the cinemascope screen.
He underestimates his audience and is overly concerned with propagandizing. So he loads down his ship with too many people, steers it through a mire o humanitarian cliches, and, glug, it sinks.