By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: This ship goes nowhere.
Based on the true story of the ill-fated voyage of 937 Jewish refugees who left the port of Hamburg, Germany in 1939 on the ocean liner St.Louis, which was supposed to arrive in Havana, Cuba where they hoped to start a new life free of the rising antisemitism that had plagued them in Europe. However, when the ship reaches Cuba they are not allowed to dock and when the ship’s Captain (Max Von Sydow) tries to take them to the US and Canada they are refused entry as well forcing them to return to Germany.
Given the high production values and riveting story-line I was expecting it to be far more compelling than it ends up being. It’s not like Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is poor either because it isn’t, but it never gains any dramatic traction and the more it goes on the more boring it gets. This is definitely one instance where cutting the runtime would’ve been advantageous. I know we live in an era where the ‘director’s cut’ is considered the gold standard, but sometimes there’s good reasons for why studios edit it and usually it’s because some of the footage just isn’t necessary. I watched the 158 version, but the theatrical cut was trimmed to 134 minutes and after watching this one I can only presume that version would’ve been an improvement and if anything could’ve gained a better pace, which is something that is seriously lacking here.
There also too many characters and it’s hard to keep track of all them or get emotionally invested in their quandary especially when by-and-large their all suffering from the same dilemma. The time span between when they show a character to when they return is so long that by the time you see them again you’ve pretty much forgotten all about them.
The large cast is full big names and familiar faces and a few of them do a terrific job. I felt Von Sydow’s performance as the beleaguered but stoic captain was right on-target and I also enjoyed Orson Welles as the glib Cuban politician. Kudos also should go to Lee Grant, who ended up getting nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar here, for her one shocking scene where she cuts her hair down to its scalp, but overall most of the talent gets wasted. This includes Denholm Elliot and Jose Ferrer who appear onscreen for only a few minutes and Katherine Ross who has only two scenes that come near the end, but still managed to somehow get a Golden Globe nomination for her efforts anyways.
The film ends on a supposed happy note when the ship’s captain informs the passengers that Belgium and France will accept them, but then the denouncement states that 600 of them ended up dying anyways during the German Occupation making the viewer feel much like the passengers that they’ve just spent almost 3-hours going in circles. Maybe that’s the point, but as an insightful drama it fails. I was almost hoping that the Captain would’ve gone through with his plan to have the ship crash off the shore of England and allowing the passengers to disembark as a safety precaution, but still trying to make it look like it was an accident and not intentional. Although this would’ve swayed from what really happened it could’ve been an interesting thing to see and brought some genuine action into the mix, which was otherwise missing.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: December 22, 1976
Runtime: 2 Hours 38 Minutes
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Studio: Embassy Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video