In this altered version of Jack London's novel a cruel captain misleads his ship to disaster as an angry sailor falls in love with a woman convict.
In 1900 George Leach (John Garfield) avoids police in a San Francisco saloon and agrees to sail on the Ghost with drunk Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald) and a drugged man. Escaped convict Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino) asks Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) for help and jumps overboard before the ferry collides with a ship. Van Weyden and Ruth are rescued by the Ghost. The first mate dies, and captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) refuses to put van Weyden ashore, making him cabin boy and promoting Leach, who argues and is knocked down. Cooky reads the writing of van Weyden, who accuses him of stealing. Larsen laughs at drunk Dr. Prescott (Gene Lockhart). Van Weyden sees Larsen's intellectual books and says he earns money writing fiction. Larsen tells about his life. Leach says that Ruth needs help or she'll die, but Dr. Prescott passed out. Delirious Ruth fears going back to prison. Larsen tells the doctor to give her a transfusion with Leach's blood. Sober Dr. Prescott brings Ruth on deck, and she thanks Leach. Larsen tells Cooky to put bars on her windows, and she slaps van Weyden. Leach throws a sharp tool at Larsen and is arrested. Van Weyden tells Larsen his ego is fed by cruelty. Dr. Prescott tells Larsen he wants respect, and the captain tells the crew to do so but then kicks him down the steps. The crew mocks Dr. Prescott, who climbs the rigging and tells about Larsen's enmity toward his brother before jumping to his death.
Ruth visits Leach, who says he can get her off the boat. Larsen is jumped by Leach and others and is thrown overboard; but he climbs back on deck and finds van Weyden. Larsen asks Cooky to find out who was involved. Van Weyden struggles with Larsen, who becomes blind and asks him not to tell the men. Larsen rips up the list of mutineers and says they will steal sealskins from his brother. Larsen says Cooky is the informer, and the men throw Cooky overboard with a rope. A shark attacks Cooky's leg. Leach comes to van Weyden, who hides him from Larsen. Van Weyden tells Leach to go and joins him. Ruth declines to go, but Leach knocks her out. Leach realizes that Larsen put vinegar in their kegs. Larsen learns of a ship, and Cooky says Larsen is blind.
Van Weyden, Leach, and Ruth find the Ghost abandoned. Larsen locks up Leach, who tells van Weyden and Ruth to take the food. Van Weyden finds Larsen with a gun. Van Weyden describes the end of Larsen, who shoots him. Larsen locks out Ruth, but wounded van Weyden asks Larsen for the key to save Leach. Ruth gets the key, and van Weyden dies. Leach and Ruth escape in the boat while Larsen goes down with his ship.
This melodrama reflects the fear of cruel dictators
who were currently ravaging Europe.