powered by AFI
Based on a chilling real-life incident from the early days of World War II, Voyage of the Damned (1976) told the dramatic story of a shipload of European Jews expelled from Hitler's Germany who sailed across the Atlantic in 1939 in a quest to gain asylum in Havana, Cuba, and eventually the United States. What they found when they arrived was a shocking and ultimately deadly slap-in-the-face that still reverberates today, nearly seventy years later.
The ship was the SS St. Louis, out of Hamburg, and the voyage was actually a Nazi-crafted ruse straight from the warped mind of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels. The Nazis knew that the U.S. would be reluctant to offer sanctuary to the passengers, therefore the Nazi policy of persecution would be validated and the world would accept their heinous treatment of Germany's Jewish citizens. The issue of Jewish refugees was a problem the Allies had not come to terms with, despite the obvious humanitarian necessity to do so. Hitler was right, as it turned out; the St. Louis sat in Havana harbor for weeks, its voyagers virtual captives aboard the vessel, while the Cuban government and U.S. officials, under pressure from unsympathetic forces inside President Franklin Roosevelt's government who would not change pre-War immigration quotas, refused to allow the over nine-hundred passengers to land. Eventually the ship was forced to sail back to Europe, where the passengers were dispersed between Great Britain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands. While no exact figures are available, it is estimated that approximately one third of the exiles eventually lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps, while the rest were able to survive the War and settle all over the world, including many who eventually came to the United States where they had been rejected years before.
To tell this serious and shameful tale, co-production companies ITC and Associated General took their tone and scale from the then-trendy world of the disaster picture, those all-star everything-but-the-kitchen-sink epics which had captured audiences' imaginations in a big way. Earthquake (1974), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), The Hindenburg (1975), Airport (1970)...each one stuffed to the gills with movie stars of varying degrees of talent and marquee value, in the theory that if one star is good, handfuls of them are even better.
The prize catch for Voyage of the Damned was the glamorous and talented Faye Dunaway, who had shot to stardom nearly a decade previously in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) but whose career since then had been fascinatingly uneven. The high of her Academy Award-nominated work as Bonnie Parker wasn't matched again until she was again Oscar®-nominated in 1974 for Chinatown, and she was no stranger to films with superstar casts either, with roles in director Richard Lester's rollicking The Three Musketeers (1973) and its sequel and Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno. Just before starting work on Voyage of the Damned, Faye had finished filming Network (1976), the movie that would eventually win her the Academy Award for Best Actress. It was a very good time to have Faye Dunaway in your movie.
The rest of the cast of Voyage of the Damned was international in scope. Max von Sydow came aboard as the beleaguered Captain, a German with a heavy conscience and a thankless assignment. The Swedish actor had come to the attention of mainstream audiences for his role in the phenomenally successful horror movie The Exorcist (1973) a few years earlier, and his quiet strength would be a huge asset to the movie. The casting coups continued with Oskar Werner (in his last film role) who signed on to play Faye Dunaway's husband, Dr. Kreisler, the often-daring English actor Malcolm McDowell was tapped to play a ship's steward, Lee Grant (who won an Oscar® for her role in 1975's Shampoo) was brought in, as were Katharine Ross, Ben Gazzara, Orson Welles, Jose Ferrer, James Mason, Maria Schell, Nehemiah Persoff, Julie Harris, Wendy Hiller, Luther Adler, Sam Wanamaker, Janet Suzman and many talented names and faces from around the world.
Voyage of the Damned was directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who started his career in television then transitioned into features. His biggest success prior to this film was 1967's Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman (with whom he'd work several more times). The screenplay, based on a book by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, was written by Steve Shagan (Save the Tiger, 1973) and David Butler, and the musical score was by prolific screen and television composer Lalo Schifrin. The movie was photographed by cinematographer Billy Williams, who had received an Oscar® in 1969 for Women in Love and had just completed the desert epic The Wind and the Lion (1975).
To stand in for the unfortunate SS St. Louis the filmmakers secured the use of the venerable cruise ship the Iripinia from the Siosa Line. The stately vessel, originally built in 1929 and a veteran of frequent Transatlantic and South American routes, was remodeled in 1962 from a two funnel to a one funnel design, and began regularly sailing the Mediterranean cruise route. The Iripinia was scheduled to be removed from service in 1976, but the Voyage of the Damned production rented the aging but well-appointed ship and it was the main set for the crew and actors during filming, which began in September of 1975 in the waters off Barcelona, Spain. In a bid for increased authenticity, the cast spent long hours aboard the ship, acting not only in their own scenes but appearing in the background of other scenes to provide the verisimilitude of a cruise ship environment where all passengers would mingle on deck. It was an unusual move and much different from a traditional filming arrangement, the increased familiarity sometimes straining their relationships.
In her autobiography Looking for Gatsby, Faye Dunaway related how the large cast developed into divided camps, one led by actress Lee Grant and the other by Maria Schell. At dinnertime everyone would move to their respective sides of the huge Barcelona Ritz Hotel dining room and scope each other out in the mirrored walls, egos at the ready. Despite some misgivings with the script which she felt didn't capture the seriousness of the actual incident, Faye was impressed with Lee Grant's performance in their pivotal scene together. It is the harrowing sequence where Grant, overcome with hysterical grief, raggedly scissors her hair off in a fury of self-destruction. The two actresses found a desperate intensity in their moments together, and many critics cited this scene as the one that cinched Lee Grant's Oscar® nomination as Best Supporting Actress for Voyage of the Damned.
Despite the talented cast, the attention to detail and the lavish production, critics were not receptive to Voyage of the Damned when it opened in late December 1976. Neither a totally accurate or convincing historical recreation nor a full-fledged overwrought disaster flick, Voyage of the Damned seemed to many reviewers too long at 155 minutes, and yet it was criticized for its superficial treatment of its important story. Most of them complained that the abundance of big name stars was more a distraction than an enhancement, and generally deemed the movie too confusing and too cluttered. Nevertheless, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, the aforementioned Best Supporting Actress nod for Lee Grant, Best Music, Original Score for Lalo Schifrin, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, for Steve Shagan and David Butler; there were no wins.
Seen from the perspective of thirty years later, Voyage of the Damned still provides a decent introduction, at least, to a disturbing incident out of history. It's also a relic of a certain kind of filmmaking, a time where no expense was spared to try to convince audiences that they were seeing something spectacular, and important in terms of artistic and historical merit, even if the star power on display seems a bit frivolous and beside the point. Voyage of the Damned may not be a success on all counts but it was a noble effort grandly undertaken for all the right reasons.
Producer: Robert Fryer
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay: David Butler and Steve Shagan, Gordon Thomas (book), Max Morgan Witts (co-author)
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Art Direction: Jack Stephens
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: Tom Priestley and Desmond Saunders
Cast: Faye Dunaway (Denise Kreisler), Oskar Werner (Dr. Egon Kreisler), Lee Grant (Lillian Rosen), Sam Wanamaker (Carl Rosen), Lynne Frederick (Anna Rosen), Julie Harris (Alice Fienchild), Maria Schell (Mrs. Hauser), Jonathan Pryce (Joseph Manasse), Max von Sydow (Capt. Schroeder), Malcolm McDowell (Max Gunter).
by Lisa Mateas