We watched The Legend of 1900, a 1998 fantasy produced byItalian filmmakers, shot in Italy and Ukraine, but performed in English.

The premise of this movie, directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) is that at the turn of the 20th century someone traveling in steerage aboard a transatlantic steamer bears a male child and abandons it in the ship’s dining room. Danny, played by Bill Nunn, who works in the ship’s boiler room, finds the child and decides to secretly raise it himself.


Danny names the baby Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon 1900, combining his own name, an advertisement on the box the child was left in, and the year. When the boy is still young, Danny dies in a shipboard accident. The youngster stays on the ship and becomes a familiar figure. He is universally known simply as 1900.


In a development that is not explained, 1900 is attracted to the piano to the extent that he becomes a player of almost unparalleled skill. He joins the ship’s orchestra and his dazzling keyboard technique builds an international reputation for him. On one occasion, the famous jazz pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton – played by Clarence Williams III (late of “The Mod Squad”) arrives on the ship. Piqued by the implications of 1900’s reputation, Morton challenges the mysterious man to a piano duel.


This story is narrated by a mournful character named Max Toomey – played by Pruitt Taylor Vince – a trumpeter who gets a job with the ship’s orchestra and becomes 1900’s closest friend, although why the introverted musician is so comfortable with Toomey is unclear.

Max tries unsuccessfully to convince 1900 to leave the ship, establish a more normal life ashore, and capitalize further on his talent and fame.


Thanks in part to 1900’s understandable infatuation with an unnamed passenger played by Melanie Thierry, Max’s campaign almost succeeds. In the end, however, 1900 finds the seemingly limitless expanse of the world beyond the gangplank to be far too uncertain a prospect, and he never leaves the ship.

The concept of a man who spends his entire life on board a passenger ship makes for compelling fantasy, and we found this film engrossing on that account. I have read some criticism of Roth’s performance to the effect that he used too narrow a range of emotions, but I disagree. One can assume that a man whose physical movement was restricted to the confines of the ship would be confined in other ways as well – and emotions seems like an aspect of personality very likely to be affected. I also thought the reticence of the character made 1900 suitably eerie even while he was sympathetic and even endearing. In all, it’s an unusual and worthwhile film experience.