Based on a horrific real-life incident and featuring an enormous cast of international stars, Voyage of the Damned should be powerful, but because the filmmakers opted for a talky approach—and because so many actors were relegated to minor roles that no single character provides narrative focus—Voyage of the Damned is merely pedestrian. The opportunity to make something great was so broadly missed, in fact, that it’s possible some enterprising soul in the future will revisit the subject matter and generate a remake with the impact this original version should have had.
Set in 1939, the picture depicts one of the Third Reich’s most brazen propaganda schemes. The Nazis loaded hundreds of Jews, some of whom were extracted from concentration camps, onto a luxury liner headed from Europe to Cuba. The passengers were told they were being set free, but the Nazis’ plan was to publicize the inevitable refusal by the Cuban government to accept so many unwanted immigrants. Per the insidious designs of Third Reich official Joseph Goebbels, the plan was to “prove” that Jews are unwanted everywhere, thus justifying the Final Solution. And therein lies the fundamental narrative problem of this picture—every person on board the ship, save for the captain and a few Nazi functionaries—is essentially a pawn in a larger game that’s taking place in Berlin. Thus, none of the characters in the movie truly drives the action, although some brave souls among the passengers prepare political counter-attacks once the true nature of the journey becomes evident.
Intelligently but unremarkably written by David Butler and Steve Shagan, from a book by Max Morgan-Witts and Gordon Thomas, Voyage of the Damned was directed by versatile journeyman Stuart Rosenberg, who generally thrived with pulpier material; his long dialogue scenes end up feeling stilted and theatrical, especially because some actors ham it up to make the most of their abbreviated screen time. Surprisingly, performers Lee Grant, Katharine Ross, and Oskar Werner each received Golden Globe nominations (Grant got an Oscar nod, too), even though their roles in Voyage of the Damned are so ordinary—and the overall story so turgid—that nothing really lingers in the memory except the haunting real-life circumstance underlying the story. (The picture’s shortcomings are exacerbated by an anticlimactic ending, which apparently represents a somewhat rose-colored vision of what happened in real life.)
Nonetheless, the luminaries on display in Voyage of the Damned are impressive: The cast includes Faye Dunaway, Denholm Elliot, José Ferrer, Ben Gazzara, Helmut Griem, Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, James Mason, Malcolm McDowell, Jonathan Pryce, Jack Warden, Orson Welles, and the great Max von Sydow, who plays the ship’s noble captain. (Watch for Billy Jack star Tom Laughlin in a minor role as an engineer.) Fitting the posh cast, Voyage of the Damned is somewhat like an elevated riff on the disaster-movie genre, but the lack of truly dramatic events means the film is less an all-star spectacular and more an all-star mood piece. Grim, to be sure, but not revelatory.
Voyage of the Damned: FUNKY