Based on Harry Hervey's novel, a French officer assigned to run a prison camp in Indochina succumbs to alcoholism, but his wife makes him buck up.
Emil de Frontenac is reprimanded by Lt. Andre Verlaine (Melvyn Douglas) for being broken while trying to run the prison camp at Lao Bao. Captain Remy Baudoin (Adolphe Menjou) is jealous that Therese Du Flos (Ann Harding) is marrying Andre. When Andre is sent to run Lao Bao, he commends Therese for not asking to go with him. After one year Andre is re-appointed. Therese says good-bye to her father, Col. Du Flos (Ian Maclaren), who speaks of the white man's prestige. In Saigon Remy gives Therese a pass through the jungle and asks her not to go. Andre is drunk and stops the natives music. After a river journey in a small boat, Therese arrives and is a curiosity to the women. She finds Andre passed out drunk. Women do a ceremonial dance for Andre and Therese's wedding. He shows her prisoners, and a man with a knife is stopped. Therese puts up curtains, but Andre says they need air. Ants cover candy she left out, and Therese takes down the curtains.
Andre executes the bandit chief Turon by guillotine. Therese writes to her father to get Andre transferred. Remy arrives, and Andre is glad to see him. Remy tells Andre it was a mistake using influence over those in Saigon; Andre is ordered to stay on. Therese finds Andre tipsy, and he refuses to go in to dinner for a while. Therese looks forward to Paris in two months, and Andre walks out. Therese asks Andre to behave, and he says he is sentenced to life there. Therese says they can stay; Andre must carry his burden with his head up. Remy tells Therese he is leaving to go on a vacation to Paris and embraces her; but she pulls away. Therese gets a letter from her father that Andre is being transferred. Andre gets angry and tells her to get out. Remy tells Therese to go with him. She follows with her bags to the boat, where she finds that the house servant Nham (Clarence Muse) killed Remy. Andre sentences Nham to death; then Therese tells Andre why Nham killed Remy. Therese visits Nham, and natives chase them and gather before Andre, who removes his gun-belt. Andre goes through the crowd whipping them. A native guard with a rifle shoots Andre in the shoulder. A native soldier blows a bugle, and others back up. Andre calls the company to attention. Therese reminds Andre of the orders and says, "Heads up," as he salutes the flag.
This slow-paced drama exposes French racism and colonialism in Indochina that becomes a "burden" for the prestigious white race.