Timeless Media // 1976 // 158 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // September 23rd, 2013
The incredible story of the ship that shamed the world.
While it might have peaked in the '60s, the All-Star Vehicle was alive and well in the '70s. While usually reserved for the time-capsuled "Disaster" genre (Airport, The Towering Inferno, and so on), the format got a nice shot in the arm from the Agatha Christie adaptations, beginning with Murder on the Orient Express, which massaged the throw-back nature of the whole "All-Star" business and had some fun with it.
Ah, but it wasn't all fun. There were also "Serious-Minded All-Star Movies," none more serious than those that dealt with such defining events of the 20th Century as the rise of the Nazis, World War 2, and the Holocaust. There were films that lived up (The Longest Day, Judgment at Nuremberg) and films that fell short (Ship of Fools, Is Paris Burning?).
Voyage of the Damned, released in 1976, fell somewhere in between living up and falling short.
The film tells a true story, one that's both heartbreaking and infuriating: in May 1939, the Nazi government dispatched a cruise ship, the S.S. St. Louis, to Cuba carrying 937 passengers, all Jews. The passengers believed they were being transported to freedom from the oppressive Nazi regime; in fact, Cuba had never agreed to accept the refugees. The whole thing was merely a public relations ploy for the Third Reich.
It's a harrowing story, and as the film unfolds, we see much behind the scenes finagling to try to get Cuba to let the passengers disembark. The passengers were ignorant of all this, expecting no problems with starting a new life in Cuba, so they enjoyed the cruise, and there are a number of scenes of them celebrating that are painfully poignant, since we know what's actually going on. As other countries, including the U.S., turn the ship away, it becomes horrifyingly clear that they will have to return to Germany, where they face certain arrest and internment in the camps.
To bring this story to life, Sir Lew Grade's ITC entertainment assembled an "All-Star" cast -- the poster art reproduced on this Blu-ray features no less than 18 "star portraits," though hell if I could identify more than half of them -- and hired Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) to direct. The result is a film that's moving, tasteful, well-intended, and handsomely produced; it's also ponderous, unwieldy, and a bit overblown.
The problem with the film is that it tries too hard and too nakedly for greatness. The All-Star cast, which should be a draw, ends up as a liability. It's not so much that the performances aren't good -- they're quite good overall, though there's also quite a bit of ACTING going on -- but that there are just too many "spot the star" moments. This is especially true when the action moves to Havana, where the captain (Max von Sydow, The Seventh Seal) is attempting to dock.
As a framing device, we get a doctor who's trying to negotiate with officials (and other, less savory types) to get his young daughters off the ship. The doctor is played by the talented, but not recognizably movie-star-ish Victor Spinetti (Help!); however, virtually everyone he encounters is a "famous face." Thus, we get a long parade of cameos by people like Orson Welles, James Mason, and Katharine Ross, all introduced in a kind of "gotcha" way that you'd expect to find on a star-studded holiday special from the '70s. As a consequence, many of these scenes fall flat; the audience isn't invested enough in the doctor and his children, and the whole business of "what celebrity is going to be on the other side of the door?" becomes wearying.
Things are a bit better back on the boat, where famous folks like Faye Dunaway and Lee Grant mingle with hordes of extras. At least Dunaway and Grant -- along with Lynne Frederick (Vampire Circus), as Grant's daughter, who gets involved with non-political crew man Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) -- get significant storylines that, while coming perilously close to soap opera, at least give us more developed characters than those who just pop in for a scene or two.
Rosenberg's direction tends toward heavy-handedness. Yes, this is an important story, but Rosenberg has crafted a self-consciously important film. The jumping around -- from the ship to the doctor in Havana to Ben Gazzara, as a Jewish humanitarian trying desperately to find refuge for the passengers -- gives the whole thing a feeling of disconnect. The efforts to accommodate all the stars by providing them with anecdotal bits of backstory and business -- including some scenes at the beginning with Wendy Hiller, who disappears after her bit is over, and Maria Schell and Nehemiah Persoff, who turn up near the end for a completely unnecessary bit of melodrama -- make the whole thing come off as a kind of gravitas-heavy episode of The Love Boat. I understand there's a version that's actually 20 minutes longer than the almost 160 minutes we're given here; I honestly can't imagine how tacking on 20 more minutes could improve a film that should actually be 20 minutes shorter than it already is.
Voyage of the Damned was released on DVD a few years ago, but this Blu-ray isn't much of an upgrade. Tech-wise, this one's a BINO -- Blu in Name Only. The 1.78:1/1080p image is soft, there are nicks and scratches, and the colors are dull. The DTS-HD mono track is serviceable at best. There are no significant supplements to encourage upgrading from the standard def release, only a trailer and a photo gallery, plus a DVD copy. Given the historical significance, a featurette on the real-life event would have been a nice addition.
It's a bleak story told with a bit too much bombast. Maybe this was the only way to make it palatable to a general audience in the '70s, as a high-gloss prestige offering; unfortunately, it just doesn't hold up.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Timeless Media
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 158 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* DVD Copy