Based on Robert Ardrey’s play, a lonely lighthouse keeper, frustrated by the world in 1939, imagines how passengers on a ship who died there in 1849 lived and tried to escape the challenges of their time by going to America.
At the Great Lakes Navigation Commission a call comes in that the 957 was caused by the lighthouse keeper Charleston not cashing his salary checks. This word is passed up the chain of the accountants, each one wanting to take credit for discovering it was the Thunder Rock lighthouse. The boss calls in his inspector and learns no relief has been there for five months.
A seaplane lands near the isolated little island of the lighthouse. The pilot Streeter (James Mason) calls to Charlie. The inspector says he is a good lighthouse keeper. Inside Streeter reads a memorial to several immigrants who died in a gale near there under Captain Joshua Stewart in 1849. A man brings in a box marked fragile and some newspapers. David Charleston (Michael Redgrave) comes down the stairs and offers his friend Streeter a drink. The inspector says he is supposed to stay in touch. Streeter gives Charleston the money he borrowed from him over the years, reviewing the places where he borrowed money in various countries. Streeter gives him $1200, and Charleston says he does not use that stuff there. They walk outside, and Streeter says he is quitting the service and is going to China. Streeter asks what he does alone. Charleston suggests his friend is idealistic, but Streeter denies it until he is asked why he does not fly for the Japanese. They go back in and drink some more. Charleston says the world is bent for destruction, and he wants to get out of it. Charleston quotes the plaque, and says his life is dedicated to those who died. He explains he likes their lives better than theirs in his time. Now there is nothing left to exploit except in war. Charleston hopes people will die off fast. Streeter calls him a hypocrite, and Charleston hits him in the mouth, drawing blood. He apologizes and tells him to put water on it. Streeter drinks and admits alcohol is an anti-septic. Charleston says he has built up his own world in his head. Streeter learns they are the ghosts of those who died there. Only Captain Joshua knows he is dead. The inspector calls Streeter, and he leaves. The Inspector gives Charleston the book Darkening World written by C. D. H. Charleston. The inspector says Charleston gets leave in a month, but he does not want it. The inspector says he has to take his leave. Streeter asks him to go with him and hopes he will change his mind as he boards the plane.
Charleston goes inside, throws the book aside, and lights the stove and lamp. He goes upstairs and cranks the big light before lighting it. He sets it rotating and goes down to his rooms. He gets out his log book and looks at the list of passengers. He thinks about them. Captain Joshua Stewart (Finlay Currie) appears, and they talk. The Captain says the six people he has created are like ghosts. The Captain suggests he start again with the baby. Ted Briggs (Frederick Cooper), Dr. Stefan Kurtz (Frederick Valk) and Melanie Kurtz (Lilli Palmer) are there. Mr. Briggs hopes to find gold in California. Anne-Marie Kurtz (Sybille Binder) talks to Melanie and Charleston. She does not want to live in Wisconsin. The Captain says Charleston has made them shallow. Charleston asks what they need, and the Captain says they and Charleston lack courage. Charleston shows him the book he just got. In the book is a picture of Bouchon who talks with Charleston about ending wars. He asks Charleston to help their cause with his writing. A Japanese man talks with them about the League of Nations. Then he tells Japanese military and officials that they can march into Manchukuo without the League acting.
Charleston is on a train with Streeter and gets a newspaper. He asks a man to translate it for them. An Italian official checks their passports, and they are blamed for insulting Il Duce. They get into a fight with two policemen and are arrested.
At the police station an English official comes in and advises them to pay the fine. Charleston pays the fines.
In the chapter on Spain the Civil War is going. The next chapter is “German Strength,” and armaments are demonstrated for Hitler and a crowd that salutes. Charleston writes a comment.
Charleston is dining with French soldiers and a woman at a restaurant. They tell him the Maginot will protect them. Charleston says he is going back to England.
Charleston at a table complains about what they do with his writing. They complain his view of the truth is tilted to the left. He says he is opposed to fascism which must be stopped. A man says they will not bite. Charleston quits and warns them what they will have on their conscience when it all blows up.
Charleston writes a book Report from Inside. He speaks in a campaign to awaken the English. At the final rally he warns that freedom is on the verge of perishing. He says they must act and defeat freedom’s enemies. People leave but do not buy his book. Charleston walks alone in the street. He goes into a cinema to see newsreels. Germany has invaded the Sudetanland as Czechs weep. He observes the English in the audience. They like the cartoon better, and he leaves.
The Captain tells Charleston he must try again. He asks him to see how Briggs really was when he was asking for the doctor. The Captain says he can help his passengers by giving them hope. Briggs is worried about his tenth-born. Briggs asks the Captain what is the truth. Briggs says he will send them to school. Anne-Marie Kurtz prays it will not be a girl. She feels she has wasted her life. She wants to join the Mormons in Salt Lake City. Charleston asks her why. He asks Melanie why she left Vienna. Dr. Kurtz comes down the stairs and implies that Mrs. Briggs died. Anne-Marie and Melanie are glad there is less ignorance in the world. Charleston asks if anyone is sorry that a woman and her baby are dead. The Captain asks Charleston to follow him upstairs. He shows him Briggs working in the old world with a coal fire and coughing. Briggs goes home and finds Harry (George Carney) there. He gives Briggs their tickets to sail to Niagara and then to the Lakes and Milwaukee. From there they can go to California to find gold. Harry says Maggie will look after the youngsters and leaves.
The Captain says six weeks later they boarded his ship. Charleston asks about Mrs. Kirby. Charleston sees Ellen Kirby (Barbara Mullen) at a dance with Robert (Barry Morse). She tells Robert that she wants to be a writer or a teacher. He disagrees, and she suggests they break it off. She says she has seen how women are treated. He says her father advanced him money based on their engagement. She tells him to go home and walks away. Robert tells her father that Ellen has jilted him because of books by Mary Wollstonecraft she has been reading. Robert leaves, and the father finds the books. Ellen comes back in, and he says he will burn the books. She says he has no right to be in her room. He rips up the books. She says she will leave if he does not stop. He slaps her and walks out.
A judge reprimands Ellen for reading those books and sentences her to 28 days in prison. Another judge sends her away for six months. Ellen pleads before a third judge who says she is accused of inciting a riot. He gives her eighteen months. A fourth judge lectures her and blames her for upsetting women. She describes the terrible work of a young woman. He sentences her to three years of servitude. Ellen is writing in prison, and a guard reads what she wrote about what women will do. She says women will sit with the men someday. He warns her not to get caught with that, or she will have to serve her full sentence.
Ellen returns to Robert and tells him she wants to go to America. She has no one else and asks him for £75 for the journey. He gives her the money and asks where she is going. She says Salt Lake City.
The Captain sends Charleston to see Dr. Kurtz, who is in his office seeing patients. Melanie asks him to help a woman, but he says she is too weak for an operation. She says she is in pain and pleads with him to help her. He goes with her, and Mrs. Kurtz tries to dissuade him. A priest is praying by the bed of a woman. Dr. Kurtz comes in and asks for hot water. Dr. Kurtz will use a sleeping potion to prevent pain during the operation. A man forbids him to use such methods. Dr. Kurtz puts some chloroform on a cloth as her brother watches.
Dr. Kurtz is reprimanded by a committee of men for what he did because the woman died. He is warned he must stop these experiments if he is to continue practicing in Vienna.
Anne-Marie Kurtz is playing the piano while Melanie listens but asks her to stop. Melanie says it has been three hours. Dr. Kurtz returns. He sits down and writes. A mob outside throws a rock through the window. Dr. Kurtz goes out on the balcony and asks why they did it. A man accuses him of killing his sister. Dr. Kurtz asks if they want to suffer pain. The man warns him to leave town, or they will burn his house.
On the ship the Captain asks the passengers how they are doing during the storm. He sits down and writes in his logbook.
Charleston closes the door and says to the five that they are all running away. Dr. Kurtz asks why he says that. Charleston asks why they are giving up so soon in 1849. Dr. Kurtz says the world is growing dark. People are deserting their fatherlands for prizes in an alien land. Charleston tells him about Charles Darwin and Louis Pasteur. He tells Ellen about Florence Nightingale and mentions Abraham Lincoln. He tells them how women will be in the halls of Congress. He asks them not to give up because improvements are coming. Charleston says he knows, but he can’t help them. They ask how he knows and can be so sure. He asks where Briggs is and calls him. Briggs comes down. The Captain warns him, but Charleston explains to them that they were killed ninety years ago. They only exist in his mind. They question him. Charleston says all is in his thoughts, and he asks the Captain to back him up; but the Captain declines. Melanie reads the plaque how their ship struck a reef, and all hands were lost. Dr. Kurtz asks Charleston why he did this. He says it is 1939, and their problems have been solved. Dr. Kurtz suggests he has been using them to help him solve his problem. Charleston agrees and says that civilization is being destroyed by war. Dr. Kurtz says he fought at Austerlitz, but Charleston laughs at how that compares to modern warfare. Dr. Kurtz accuses him of cowardice and stupidity. Charleston asks them all to get out of his mind. The Captain says he cannot dismiss them now because they are part of him. Charleston asks them what they want. They ask him, and he says he wants to see a world with a future. They tell him he must face his challenges just as they did. Dr. Kurtz says he failed to solve a problem sooner, but it was still solved. Dr. Kurtz says no obstacle can stop civilization as long as humans keep on going. They say he must accept his share of responsibility for the world. Dr. Kurtz says they will go back into the darkness if he will stand and fight as they never did. If he agrees, they will leave him in peace. They urge him to be courageous. Dr. Kurtz says they will go out the door to die again, and the Captain leads them out. Melanie is the last to say good-bye. She envies the girl he will meet one day and their right to fight for what they believe is true.
Charleston walks outside alone and looks at the waves hitting the rocks.
This dramatic fantasy reflects the despair felt as fascism created another world war. The idealistic writer failed to stop the drift toward the war but learns that challenges must be faced and will eventually be solved by learning about the hardships reformers experienced in the previous century.