Strange Cargo (1940)

“There’s nothing a man can’t get through to be free!”

Synopsis:
A convict (Clark Gable) escapes from a French penal colony with a small group of fellow prisoners — including a calm, Christ-like figure (Ian Hunter) — accompanied by a prostitite (Joan Crawford) eager to get away from a weaselly informer (Peter Lorre).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this atmospheric outing by director Frank Borzage with the simple statement: “Strange film.” He notes that the “picture begins dynamically on [a] penal colony, with extremely good, hard-edged dialogue being exchanged by the sinful characters.” He adds that the “initial meetings between Gable and the hostile Crawford are gems”, and that “Gable and Crawford sizzle throughout”. However, he argues that “the religious mumbo-jumbo gets in [the] way of what might have been a fascinating escape film. Every time anybody wants to do something exciting, the calm and solemn Hunter stops them, tells them the possible consequences of their actions, and gives them second thoughts”, thus leading to “the characters’ toughness and the picture’s as well [being] diluted.”

I’m not quite in agreement with Peary’s assessment. While it’s certainly an interesting narrative choice to have a living conscience accompanying the crew of sinners, it’s done consistently enough (Hunter really is Christ-like) that we understand what the filmmakers are aiming for. I think it’s the point of this film for the characters to become less tough, and learn how to live a more introspective, charitable life (even if they’re near the end of it — as many are). I wish Lorre had some juicier moments, but Gable and Crawford bring solid star presence and credibility to their roles — and the overall cinematography and direction are stellar. This would make an interesting double-bill with Papillon (1973), also about an attempted escape from Devil’s Island.

Note: This was the eighth and final collaborative film between Crawford and Gable, who were on-and-off-again lovers, rivals, and lifelong friends.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Joan Crawford as Julie
  • Clark Gable as Verne
  • Strong direction by Borzage
  • Robert Planck’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an atmospheric, well-acted, unusual flick.

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One Response to “Strange Cargo (1940)”

  1. Agreed – a once-must, as ‘an all-around good show’ and a worthy film that deserves more attention. Peary seems to take issue with the film’s spiritual element for no real reason other than a preference for “a fascinating escape film”. He seems to overlook the fact that ‘SC’ has a fascinating angle *as* an escape film (since the staple elements of an escape flick are in the film as well).

    As per my post of 3 years ago in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “Don’t give me any of that ‘Sister-come-to-Salvation.’ …It starts out with a prayer, and ends up with a Bible in one hand and me in the other!”

    TCM Pick: late night Thursday, 3/31, 1:45 AM (EST)
    ‘Strange Cargo’ (1940): This is one of the last screenings in TCM’s ‘Condemned by the Legion of Decency’ series. The LOD apparently considered it vile and disgusting for two reasons: “irreverent use of Scripture” (what would that be?; saying something like ‘Blessed are the goddamn meek”?) and “lustful complications” (I guess that means Joan Crawford playing a prostitute, a la Sadie Thompson again – but, honestly, I don’t recall *any* so-called, genuine lust depicted in this movie). It’s also strange that the LOD would condemn a film that has a main character who is, in spirit, the spitting image of Christ. This 8th and final partnership of Crawford and Clark Gable is actually one of my fave Joan films – even though it’s not one of hers that is often talked about. In 1940, director Frank Borzage also directed the highly-regarded ‘The Mortal Storm’, but ‘Strange Cargo’ is just as riveting. It concerns a group of convicts escaping from Devil’s Island and is something of an existential drama about God and sinners. I think it’s a terrific and underrated flick and I recommend you give it a go.

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