Based on the novel by Nordhoff and Hall, this historical drama opens with a print legend that accurately accounts for the transportation of prisoners from England to Botany Bay in Australia (at today’s Sydney), beginning with the voyage of the First Fleet in 1787-88. This is the story of that harsh crossing on the Charlotte, one of eleven vessels in the fleet. It is prettied up of course, but the reality of the situation lies plainly in the background.
James Mason is the ship’s captain, investing his role with echoes of Captain Bligh. He is a civilized and disciplined officer with an undesirable assignment, driven at times to cruelty. Alan Ladd plays a handsome highwayman, wrongly accused, who seeks any opportunity for escape. There is a pretty woman among the female prisoners and she is an object of attention for the principle characters. Still, she manages to maintain her ravaged dignity. A young boy, imprisoned with his mother, is put in chains by the captain and dies during a storm. The mother tries to kill the captain. Mutiny is not an option for the prisoners but Ladd and one other make an escape in a longboat. They row for their lives through a heavy fog but the ship suddenly appears at their stern. It is a very dramatic shot. Ladd and the other are sentenced to keelhauling, an obsolete practice. It Is called underwater to the other and, amazingly, Ladd survives.
The ship puts in at Botany Bay after 237 days. Two “harmless Aborigines” stand on the shore as the prisoners debark. Ladd is put on trial and sentenced to hard labor, which seems hardly more than what the others are doing. The Captain still harbors resentment toward Ladd and plans to take him back to England to face charges of insurrection. Ladd makes a final attempt to escape along with a few other prisoners only to find that he has been tricked by the Captain and led into a trap. Just as the trap is sprung, the Brits are attacked by Aborigines and the Captain is killed with a spear. Ladd has been acting as doctor to the colony and discovers the presence of plague. Heroically, he saves the day and at the end of a very labored conclusion, he gets the girl.
The trailer below shows only the opening credits and the legend. There are a few clips of shipboard scenes on YouTube.