Lionsgate // 1976 // 151 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // May 8th, 2009
The true story of survival.
With the exception of The Diary of Anne Frank and a few others, most WW2 films before Schindler's List focused on the battles. Audiences would flock to Sands of Iwo Jima and The Longest Day and be roused at the sights of our soldiers fighting the enemy in true Hollywood fashion: avoiding the Jewish condition at all costs because it wasn't deemed popcorn entertainment. People didn't want to be reminded of the Holocaust and the millions of lives lost in German concentration camps. Oh, no, they just wanted to see John Wayne whoop some Nazi scum. It's more or less understandable, too. Filmmakers were not exactly ready to dramatize such devastating material. Then again, I'm sure studios were scared to death of another backlash in the The Great Dictator-vein.
Arriving right before Star Wars brought an end to a downbeat era in Hollywood, the 1976 opus Voyage of the Damned must have opened up many audiences' eyes. At first glance, this must have looked like another overlong disaster epic with the typical overblown treatment, countless clichés, and a giant A-list cast who were willing to spend a lot of time shooting on a boat. Indeed, many of the posters produced at the time to advertise the film would emit that kind of stench. However, Damned shouldn't be dismissed so easily.
It's May, 1939, and the S.S. St. Louis is about to set sail to Havana. The majority of the 937 passengers are Jews who are attempting to escape the rising Nazi threat. Others are simple travelers who are leaving for the same reasons, assuming it's only a temporary getaway. However, the voyage itself is in fact being engineered by the country as a propaganda tactic, a way of telling the world that the nation is not preparing to capture and murder millions. As a result, Capt. Schroeder (Max Von Sydow, Minority Report), his committed crew, and all the passengers are about to become unwilling pawns in a political game between Germany and the rest of the world.
Frankly, while this is a fascinating story, I can see how the filmmakers felt they had no other choice but to crowd the film with famous faces. Problem is, this type of stunt casting only makes viewers forget the story at several points and play "spot the star." Because of the steady pace and lack of fireworks, the cast was really the only key to draw people in; to be fair, however, many of the actors acquit themselves well. Von Sydow is towering as the Captain, but other standouts are Oskar Werner (Ship Of Fools) and Faye Dunaway (who was about to win an Oscar for Network) as rich couple, Malcolm McDowall (A Clockwork Orange) as a steward, Katharine Ross (The Graduate) as a Havana prostitute, and Ben Gazzara (They All Laughed) as the outside observer who becomes the real hero.
Unfortunately, others seem to be there for paycheck and/or Academy purposes. The most obvious is Orson Welles as a loutish, whoring Cuban who sees the Jews as nothing more than economic resources. Then there is also Lee Grant, who was nominated for an Oscar. Her Big Scene involves her hacking off her hair in a manic episode that doesn't deliver the way it should have. (Appropriately, she lost to Beatrice Straight, whose sole scene in Network is simply unforgettable.) Plus, there is a genuinely histrionic turn by her onscreen husband (Sam Wanamaker, Private Benjamin) whose over-the-top suicide attempt is not to be believed. Still, other veterans like James Mason (North By Northwest), Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Fernando Rey (The French Connection), and freshman Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) all add enough panache and dramatic weight in their roles to make us forget about their fellow liabilities.
While Voyage Of The Damned certainly kept my attention to its expectedly moving finale, the film does have the unfortunate look and feel of a made-for-TV movie. This isn't exactly a complaint, but it will turn off some viewers, as will the film's 2½-hour runtime. Director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) manages to make the proceedings authentic, even when several of his actors are miscast. In addition, screenwriters Steve Shagan (Primal Fear) and David Butler (Jesus Of Nazareth) manage to infuse drama, romance, tension, and even comedy at times. I do think they could have done without the Cuban sequences (which only seem to reveal the fate of the passengers too early), but Voyage of the Damned still emerges as a fine epic that thankfully avoids the familiar flair forcibly injected by Hollywood studios.
Lionsgate's DVD treatment of Voyage Of The Damned leaves a lot to be desired, however. First off, they supply us with a flat full frame transfer, complete with some mild interlacing and dull colors. The image is clean enough, but more work could have easily been put in, as this film (at the very least) merits a proper restoration. The DD 2.0 Stereo track is free of hisses and cracks, with Lalo Schifrin's moody score coming in reasonably well. What I do damn Lionsgate for is the lack of extras. Even though Rosenberg and Butler are no longer with us, Shagan or some cast members no doubt would have stepped up to the plate. The only thing we get are some previews for other Lionsgate releases; thanks a lot!
One final note regarding to the film's runtime. According to IMDb and other sources, the film runs 158 minutes. The back of the DVD also states this. However, the movie actually clocks in at approximately 151 minutes, making it difficult to ascertain where the other seven minutes reside. However, there are prints on VHS that are 182 minutes, thus suggesting a full half hour isn't included here and Lionsgate either didn't have the access or interest to pursue the longest version available.
The film and its eclectic cast are found not guilty and free to go. However, Lionsgate is damned for not giving this fine film a respectable treatment on DVD.
Court is adjourned!
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 151 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG