A salvage queen falls for a shipwrecked captain, who competes with a lawyer, who also wants to marry her; but a crooked shipwreck intervenes.
In 1840 Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard) sees a shipwreck and goes to salvage; but King Cutler (Raymond Massey) gets there first. Loxi helps captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne). Cutler gets 50% of the cargo, and Captain Phil (Lynne Overman) and Loxi suspect he caused the wreck. Loxi's cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward) tells Dan Cutler (Robert Preston) that she loves him. Jack tells Loxi he is competing with lawyer Stephen Tolliver and wants to captain the steamer Southern Cross and have her.
In Charleston Loxi meets Stephen Tolliver (Ray Milland) and sings a sailor ballad. Ivy Devereaux is jealous that he is seeing Loxi. Stephen asks Loxi to marry. Commodore Devereaux (Walter Hampden) blames Jack for the wreck; but Stephen blames King Cutler. Stephen asks Devereaux to send him with Jack, but he is ordered to test Jack before giving him the Southern Cross. At a dance Loxi sides with Jack and blames Stephen, saying she is marrying Jack. Stephen spanks her. People think Stephen is marrying Loxi, but she goes off to wed Jack on a ship. Stephen stops them. Loxi sails with Stephen to Key West. Cutler almost gets Stephen killed, and they meet. Cutler offers whaler Bully Brown (Charles Bickford) two sailors and orders Stephen abducted. Loxi learns that Drusilla loves Dan and that Cutler is selling Stephen. She asks Jack to help Stephen and Phil. Jack sees his mate Widgeon (Victor Kilian) with those abducting. They fight; Stephen, Jack, and Phil are captured but fight again and win. They realize that Widgeon wrecked Jack's ship. Stephen sells five men to Brown. Loxi and Jack find his commission for the Southern Cross, and Jack socks Stephen. Jack goes to Cutler and accuses him. Cutler says that Devereaux died and that Stephen is now boss. Jack tells Cutler he will wreck the Southern Cross, and Cutler gives him Widgeon. Drusilla tells Dan that she will come back.
Stephen sees prices go down and suspects the Southern Cross will be wrecked. Stephen and Phil take Loxi's schooner. To stop Stephen she sabotages the sails. In Habana Drusilla pleads with Jack to take her and stows away. In fog Stephen, Loxi, and Phil see the Southern Cross hit a reef. In court Stephen cross-examines Jack, who is defended by Cutler. Jack denies that Cutler ordered the wreck but admits Widgeon was first mate. Cutler asks Stephen why he was waiting there and blames him. Loxi says she disabled her ship, because she trusted Jack. Stephen calls Widgeon, who is found hanging in a cell. Salt Meat (Oscar Polk) testifies he heard a woman scream, but Jack says he ordered Drusilla ashore. Dan gets angry and admits he loved her. Jack volunteers to dive to the wreck, and Stephen joins him with diving gear. Cutler conspires with Jack to cut Stephen's air hose; but Phil prevents it. A giant squid grabs Stephen, and Jack stabs the squid, which entangles him. Stephen attacks the squid. Stephen is pulled up and says Jack saved his life; but Jack went down with his ship. Stephen gives Dan Drusilla's shawl. Dan says Cutler will be hung. Cutler shoots Dan, and Stephen kills Cutler with Phil's pistol. In the final scene Loxi and Stephen go boating.
In this adventure drama greed causes misfortune for others,
and jealousy makes an honest man become corrupt.