In 1939, hundreds of Jewish refugees, many fresh from concentration camps, boarded the SS St Louis – flagship of the Hamburg-Amerika Line. The passengers were being permitted to leave Nazi Germany for Cuba.
Only a select few aboard knew that the trip was a hoax and a Nazi propaganda exercise: that Germany had arranged for the 937 refugees to be refused entry in Cuba and that they would be returned to Germany and certain death.
And only one man on board knew that the ship’s return journey would also be used to smuggle American military secrets from Havana back to Germany.
Voyage of the Damned was produced by Sir Lew Grade with the largest international cast ever assembled for a British film and a $6 million budget to match, to reconstruct the extraordinary true story of the voyage of the SS St Louis.
Faye Dunaway plays Denise Kreisler, the elegant wife of a doctor (Oskar Werner). They insist on leaving their homeland in style – she in an evening dress and he in his dinner jacket. Max Von Sydow has the key role of the captain of the St Louis, a non-Nazi sailor in the old naval tradition to whom, in the long run, the refugees owe their lives.
Malcolm McDowell (pictured at left) has the role of the part-Jewish steward on board; Orson Welles is a rich and influential Cuban industrialist, and James Mason plays the sympathetic Cuban Foreign Minister.
Others in the cast include Lee Grant, Luther Adler, Wendy Hiller, Julie Harris, José Ferrer, Maria Schell, Sam Wanamaker, Janet Suzman, Victor Spinetti, Ben Gazzara and old Rigsby himself, Leonard Rossiter.
German actor Helmut Griem portrays Otto Schiendick, the fanatical Nazi to whom German Counter-Intelligence chief Admiral Canaris (Denholm Elliott) entrusted the delivery of the American secrets from Havana.
Although the St Louis incident ended well for the passengers who were dispersed to various European countries just before the ship returned to Hamburg, the story still has a sad ending.
As the Nazis flooded over Europe, many of the St Louis passengers fell into German hands again and perished. At the end of the war, only 240 of the original 937 men, women and children who sailed on the ship remained alive. The German captain, Gustav Schroeder, survived the war and lived on in the memories of those he helped save.
Professor Egon Kreisler
David de Keyser
Max von Sydow
Dr Juan Remos
Dr Erich Strauss
Commander Von Bonin