Very loosely based on Richard Dana's novel, a ruthless captain of a merchant marine ship starves his shanghaied crew to mutiny.
In 1834 ship-owner Gordon Stewart (Ray Collins) learns that the Pilgrim has been sighted, and he quickly makes a lucrative contract to sell California hides. He refuses to let the boy Sam Hooper (Darryl Hickman) go to sea. Charles Stewart (Alan Ladd) borrows more money from his wealthy parents. In a tavern Amazeen (William Bendix) buys rum and signs up sailors for the crew. Many men, including Charles Stewart, are abducted and put aboard as crew. His father decides not to press charges. The writer Richard Dana (Brian Donlevy) has joined the crew.
Captain Thompson (Howard Da Silva) has been breaking sailing records and demands absolute obedience. Bellamer (Tom Powers) is given twenty lashes for fighting with Amazeen. Thompson refuses to put Stewart ashore. Stewart discovers Sam stowing away and gives him the mates' food. Other crew see Stewart eating the chicken also. Thompson puts the whole crew on strict rations because Stewart does not admit stealing the food. Sam is found and admits he stole the food. Thompson makes him cabin boy and cancels the strict rations.
Thompson makes the crew practice firing the guns. Stewart catches the mate Foster (Luis Van Rooten) reading Dana's book and punches him. Thompson punishes Stewart with ten lashes, and the cook Dooley (Barry Fitzgerald) treats his wounds with salt water. The crew needs fresh food, and Brown (Albert Dekker) threatens Foster. Thompson stops in Brazil to pick up passengers Maria Dominguez (Esther Fernandez) and her maid from a boat but refuses to put in for food. Sam and Stewart carry their luggage to the cabin, and Maria gives Stewart a coin. They round Cape Horn in stormy weather, and Sam eats the sick maid's food. In the storage area he finds Brown drinking. Ill Bellamer dies, and another man dies of scurvy. Thompson conducts the sea burial, and Maria blames him for the deaths. Brown catches Foster eating fresh food in the storage area, and he stabs him to death. Amazeen finds them and tells Brown to give some food to Sam and keep quiet. Amazeen tells Thompson that Foster fell overboard.
Maria tells Amazeen that they could take over the ship. Stewart breaks open the gun locker and takes over the ship from Thompson to make for land. Amazeen throws something at Stewart and gets the guns. Thompson has Stewart put in irons until his mutiny trial. At Monterey an official comes aboard, and Thompson schedules the trial. Dana joins the men jumping ship when they agree to free Stewart. Thompson and Amazeen get muskets, but Amazeen deflects the captain from shooting the escaping men. Amazeen jumps overboard to join them, and Thompson shoots him; he dies. The men go back to the ship. Brown throws a knife into Thompson, who shoots Brown dead before he dies. Macklin (Roman Bohnen) and the men take over the ship and put the two women onto a boat with soldiers.
Dana and Stewart persuade the men to go back to Boston so that they can explain. Dana gets his book published, and Stewart argues for reformed laws to protect men at sea.
Although this dramatic story is not found in the novel,
it explores the worst abuses that could occur on ships that gave
captains tyrannical authority.