The characters board a German ocean liner in Veracruz, Mexico, for a voyage to Bremerhaven, Germany, along with 600 displaced workers in steerage, being deported from Cuba back to Spain, and a not-so-exotic band of entertainers, for whom the voyage is just a job. Some are happy to be bound for a rising Nazi Germany, some are apprehensive, while others appear oblivious to its potential dangers.
The ship's doctor, Schumann, takes a special interest in La Condesa, a countess from Cuba who has an addiction to drugs and is being shipped to a Spanish-run prison on Tenerife. Her sense of certain doom is contrasted by the doctor's determination to fight the forces of oppression, embodied by his insistence that the people in steerage be treated like human beings rather than animals. The doctor himself has a secret, a terminal heart condition, and his sympathy for the countess soon evolves into love.
Several passengers are invited to dine each night at the captain's table. There, some are amused and others offended by the anti-Semitic rants of a German businessman named Rieber who – although married – is beginning an on-board affair with Lizzi, a busty blonde. The Jewish Lowenthal is invited instead to join a dwarf named Glocken for his meals, and the two bond over their exclusion. Eventually a passenger named Freytag seems shocked to find himself ostracized when Rieber learns that his wife is Jewish.
Others aboard include a young American couple, David and Jenny, who bicker because David is unhappy at his lack of success with painting. A divorcée, Mary Treadwell, drinks and flirts, on a quest to recapture her youth in Paris. Bill Tenny is a former baseball player disappointed in the way his career never quite took off. They are distracted by the music and the professional dancers, whose flirtations seem to skirt the edges of solicitation, or dive right in to the seedy side of oblivion.
When the passengers disembark, two are no longer with them – the countess, who has been taken to an island prison, and the doctor, who has died.
Katherine Anne Porter's novel Ship of Fools was published in 1962. The celebrated essayist and short story author's sole novel was the culmination of a 20-year-long project that was based on her reminiscences of a 1931 ocean cruise she had taken from Vera Cruz to Germany.
Producer David O. Selznick was after the film rights but United Artists who owned the property, demanded $400,000. The novel was adapted for film by Abby Mann. Producer and director Stanley Kramer who ended up with the film, planned to star Vivien Leigh but was initially unaware of the fragile mental and physical health of his star. The film proved to be her last film and in later recounting her work, he remembered her courage in taking on the difficult role, "She was ill, and the courage to go ahead, the courage to make the film-was almost unbelievable." Leigh's performance was tinged by paranoia and resulted in outbursts that marred her relationship with other actors, although both Simone Signoret and Lee Marvin were sympathetic and understanding. In one unusual instance, she hit Marvin so hard with a spiked shoe, that it marked his face.
Although both acclaimed critically and well received by audiences, Ship of Fools was looked at by some reviewers as a Grand Hotel afloat, the 1932 film that was often aped. "Preachy and melodramatic" was another criticism, although the cast was universally praised.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times saw the film as much more, "... Stanley Kramer has fetched a powerful, ironic film ... there is such wealth of reflection upon the human condition in Ship of Fools and so subtle an orchestration of the elements of love and hate, achieved through an expert compression of the novel by Mr. Kramer and his script writer, Abby Mann, that it is really not fair to tag it with the label of any previous film. It has its own quiet distinction in the way it illuminates a theme." He also singled out the work of Oskar Werner. In a similar vein, Variety noted, "Director-producer Stanley Kramer and scenarist Abby Mann have distilled the essence of Katherine Anne Porter's bulky novel in a film that appeals to the intellect and the emotions."
The film was banned in Spain because it touched on social issues.
Ship of Fools won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Robert Clatworthy, Joseph Kish) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Ernest Laszlo). Leigh won the L'Étoile de Cristal for her performance in a leading role. Marvin won the 1966 National Board of Review Award for male actors, while Werner received the 1965 New York Film Critics Circle Award.
The film was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Oskar Werner), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Dunn), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Simone Signoret). In addition, the leading and supporting cast was nominated for British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) and Golden Globe Awards. Other nominations included Best Costume Design, Black-and-White (Bill Thomas), Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – Nominated
The film has been released on VHS, laserdisc and DVD. The film's standalone DVD release is an open matte 1.33:1 transfer with no supplements. This release is currently out of print. The film was later reissued in widescreen with supplements in a Stanley Kramer box set from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Currently, the film is also available in a budget-priced two-disc, four-movie collection DVD licensed from Sony to Mill Creek Entertainment. All four films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios and are anamorphically enhanced. The film has been released on Blu-ray in a double feature pack with the film Lilith via Mill Creek.