"Voyage of the Damned," now at the Jenifer and Springfield Mall, makes a desultory shambles of a heartbreaking true story. On May 13, 1939 the German liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg with 939 passengers, all but a handful Jewish refugees, who believed they had secured passage to safety in Cuba. Instead they became pawns in a series of legal and political manipulations which representatives of relief groups stationed in Cuba were unable to resolve.

After six days at anchor in Havana harbor and four days of dilatory cruising between Havana and Miami, the St. Louis was irrevocably denied entry in the Americans and headed slowly back across the Atlantic. The resolute, anti-Nazi captain, Gustav Schroeder, promised the remaining 907 passengers (a few Cubans had disembarked, along with one refugee who had injured himself attempting suicide and several others who benefited from extraordinary influence or intercessions) that he would not return them to Germany.

Schroeder evidently intended to scuttle the ship off the English coast if necessary. At the 11th hour the Belgian government was persuaded to accept about 200 refugees. The French, Dutch and British quickly followed suit. The ship docked at Antwerp on June 17, and the passangers were transported to refugee camps in the various countries. Perhaps two-thirds died, most in concentration camps, in the course of the war, which broke out in September of 1939.

"Voyage of the Damned" is the second all-star Message Movie packaged by Sir Lew Grade to be released this winter. (The first was "The Cassandra Crossing"). "Voyage" leaves almost everything to be desired in the way of dramatization and feeling adequate to the subject matter. There's no reason to award the movie automatic brownie points simply because it's about an authentic political and human tragedy. If anything, one ought to demand more of it for presuming to recreate such a chapter of history.

"Voyage" has a potentially compelling subject and an impressive cast. Nevertheless, one is left contemplating over two hours of balefully ragged exposition. It's as if the filmmakers imagined they were honoring the memory of the St. Louis by failing to make dramatic headway. The structure is borrowed from the original nonfiction book by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, who created some suspense while clarifying the problems by keeping up with the parallel activities of concerned parties on and off the St. Louis. Stuart Rosenberg's direction is so flat and the editing so, clumsy that the film scenario is only theoretically suspenseful. You realize there ought to be plenty of tension in this desperate situation, but the movie is too plodding to create that tension.

The inept cutting which leaves in some followup scenes that no longer have antecedents while eliminating necessary followups to many events and relationships, tends to make a mockery of the all-star cast. Some performers, like Janet Suzman, appear to have vanished entirely. Others, like Wendy Hiller, Julie Harris, Luther Adler and James Mason, bring so much innate ability to such minuscule roles that one can't help feeling gypped.

With the admirable exception of Max von Sydow's Capt. Schroeder, the plummy roles get mawkishly overripe. Malcolm McDowell and Lynne Frederick are called upon to do a gratuitous Romeo and Juliet act so the stricken captain may find them dead in each other's naked embrace. Lee Grant has secured another Oscar nomination by hacking her half off. Faye Dunaway despairs of reawakening husband Oskar Werner's ardor ("You used to be so arrogant . . . and now you're so weak").

In fact, the last half hour, covering the return voyage, seems to become a parage of egregious screenwriting cliches. Even the incidents based on fact, like an abortive attempt by some passengers to hijack the ship, look phony, thanks to the ponderous, declamatory staging, where the poor actors are compelled to read position papers at each other while holding knife-at-throat postures.

In a word, lamentable.