(On Cable TV, January 2019) There are many ways in which Ship of Fools reminded me of Grand Hotel—its 1930s setting, its ensemble cast with overlapping subplots, its black-and-white cinematography and its mixture of American and German characters. However, the comparisons only go so far and the crucial difference between the two movies is not that one is in a building and the other on an ocean liner, but that one was made in 1932 and the other one after World War II. As a result, expect a lot more Nazis in Ship of Fools than Grand Hotel, and the portentous veil that this distance casts over the entire film. As the film begins assembling its large cast of characters, it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t just about people travelling from North America to Europe on a steam ship, but a message movie about the rise of fascism in Europe. (Contemporary viewers would have known that from seeing that it’s directed by Stanley Kramer, a renowned social issues filmmaker.) The foreboding feeling is accentuated by the characters opposing their views on the world, and the film sides squarely with the marginalized over more conventional heroes. (In addition to characters with terminal illnesses or mental conditions, there are Jewish characters, obviously, and the film’s most likable character, its narrator, is played by 3′10″ Michael Dunn in an Oscar-nominated performance.) The ensemble cast is impressive, what with Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh (in her last film), José Ferrer and a terrific Simone Signoret. Ship of Fools is certainly preachy, but there’s a powerful sense of impending doom as the characters get closer to their German port of arrival. The last few moments are particularly hard-hitting, as the narrator delivers a bitterly ironic envoi.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) Frankly, I thought that I would have enjoyed The Dirty Dozen quite a bit more than I did. Part of it may have been shaped by modern expectations—in modern Hollywood, movies based on the premise of bringing together hardened criminals for a suicide mission are meticulously polished to ensure that the criminals aren’t too bad, or that they meet a morally suitable comeuppance. Our heroes have been unjustly convicted, or operate according to a sympathetic code of honour that may not meet official approval. Their adventures, first in training and then in combat, are calculated to meet focus group approval. But The Dirty Dozen, having been forged in the years following the breakdown of the chaste Hayes Code, is significantly rougher and grittier than the modern ideal. The dirty dozen members are in for reprehensible conduct, not pseudo-criminal malfeasance. The attitude of the film, as Hollywood was pushing the limits of what was acceptable in terms of violence, also permeates everything. While tame by contemporary standards of gore, The Dirty Dozen nonetheless feels … dirty. There are a lot of characters, and they’re often short-changed by the film’s juggling of roles. This being said, The Dirty Dozen is also a showcase of actors: In between Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes, George Kennedy and an impossibly young Donald Sutherland (among many others), there are a lot of familiar faces here, and that has its own appeal. If you can go along with the film’s disreputable atmosphere, it remains a competent war film … but it may be difficult to do so.