Strange Cargo (1940)

Article #1646 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 9-16-2005
Posting Date: 2-13-2006
Directed by Frank Borzage
Featuring Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter

Several convicts stage a daring escape from Devil’s Island. One of the escapees is a man who has seemingly appeared out of nowhere and may have supernatural powers.

On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than a prison melodrama, but even those who wish to enjoy it on that level will have to contend somewhat with the fact that it is a religious allegory as well. The character of Cambreau (Ian Hunter) is supposed to be Jesus Christ, and there are plenty of clues in this regard. Those who dislike religious themes in their movies may have little use for this one; for me, how I feel about religious themes in movies is dependent on how they’re used. If the religion is handled via the use of platitudes, doctrine and cute observations, I have little use for it. If it deals with resonant and powerful themes and the compelling symbolism that underlies much of it, I find it a lot more satisfying; it’s the difference between mere dogma and true spirituality. The theme of redemption is strong in this movie, and the movie gains much of its power from it. It is also full of symbolism, both verbal and visual, and it can actually be a lot of fun to observe various characters, events and statements in the light of the religious themes. Here are some touches I particularly like.

– The character of Telez (Eduardo Ciannelli), who has embraced a warped, selfish and angry religious viewpoint at odds with true spirituality.

– The thoroughly unrepentant character of Hessler (Paul Lukas); there’s a reason that Cambreau tells him that they won’t meet again.

– The fact that when Verne (Clark Gable) finally acqures a map of the escape route, it is drawn in the back pages of a Bible.

– The fact that the final scene is between Cambreau and a fisherman.

I find the movie fascinating and fun. It is well acted throughout, and other than the ones mentioned above, the cast also includes Peter Lorre (a character with the unflattering nickname of ‘Pig’) and Albert Dekker. I also do feel the need to make special mention of Joan Crawford’s performance. I’ve expressed more than once during this series my general dislike for Crawford and her performances, but this one makes me believe that I’ve not been watching her at her best. Here she is perfectly in character and works well in an ensemble fashion with the other actors, and she is wonderful. Incidentally, this will probably be the only movie with the wonderfully charismatic Clark Gable that I will be covering for this series.


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