Director – Frank Borzage, Screenplay – Lawrence Hazard, Based on the Novel Not Too Narrow … Not Too Deep by Richard Sale, Producer – Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Photography (b&w) – Robert Planck, Music – Franz Waxman, Makeup – Jack Dawn, Art Direction – Cedric Gibbons. Production Company – MGM.
Clark Gable (Verne), Joan Crawford (Julie), Ian Hunter (Cambreau), Peter Lorre (M’sieu Pig), Albert Dekker (Moll), Paul Lukas (Hessler), J. Edward Bromberg (Flaubert), Eduardo Cianelli (Telez), John Arledge (Duford), Frederic Warlock (Grideau), Bernard Nedell (Marfeau)
Verne is sentenced to life in a harsh Guyana penal colony. He attracts the attention of the warden when he recklessly pursues Julie, a woman living in the township. Verne falls in with a group of prisoners planning an escape. The mysterious Cambreau joins the group and offers to pay for Verne’s passage. As they escape and make their way across the island, avoiding the prison guards and then set sail in a small boat, Cambreau comes to predict the pitfalls they will come across. He offers each of them glimpses of themselves and the means to change their lives.
Strange Cargo has a title that could mean anything. It certainly gives no hint of what is surely one of Hollywood’s strangest allegory plays. The film starts out as a Devil’s Island escape drama. The initial build up is as torrid quasi-noir and it is not until the latter third of the film that the film starts to get interesting. During these scenes, the film transforms into a peculiar parable where it becomes apparent that one of the strangers along for the journey is, if not actually then at least allegorically, Jesus Christ.
Once the drama gets past the initial escape to the pressure cooker situation in the boat, there is particularly good etching of a group of characters on the bare edge and an eerie sense of predestination that comes into play. There are time the film is strangely affecting – one particularly liked Paul Lukas’s taunting, final confrontation of Cambreau: “Without an occasional defeat, your victories would be empty things.”
For the religious allegory it is intended as, Strange Cargo comes with surprisingly little of the sanctimony that many other religious films of the era did – see the likes of The Miracle of the Bells (1948) and Miracle in the Rain (1956). (Many religious groups objected when the film was being made, deeming it irreverent and forcing cuts to be made limiting the nature of the symbolic Christ character).
There are some awful bits – most notably the addition of an obligatory romance and the need to have to have an out-of-place Joan Crawford along for the journey. A miscast Clark Gable plays with a glib smugness – he is clearly only in the film because he was contracted to be – and his smirking and mugging grates on the nerves. However, there is some very good casting particularly in the powerful, subdued performance Paul Lukas gives and the serene calmness of Ian Hunter. Peter Lorre gives another of those slimy, deceptively baby-faced performances that he excelled at. Joan Crawford is out of place but holds her own with a sharp tongue.
The film was based on a Not Too Narrow … Not Too Deep (1936), a novel by Richard Sales, who worked as a novelist, screenwriter and sometimes director. His one other genre work was the Western The White Buffalo (1977) with Charles Bronson hunting a mythical white buffalo.