Strange Cargo

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 29, 2015

Utah native (and Catholic) Frank Borzage was Hollywood’s great Romantic, his grand theme the redemptive power of love between man and woman. Commercial American films have generally managed to overemphasize this subject and get it completely wrong at the same time. Accustomed to this state of things we may become cynical not only about love stories, but, if we’re not careful, about romance itself. Conversely, as we remember that it is not good for man or woman to be alone, we may find ourselves grateful for rapt and religious meditations such as this. Nowhere does Borzage more surprisingly and powerfully explore his subject than in this completely unique production, a Pilgrim’s Progress in the guise of a prison picture.

Set on Devil’s Island-like penal colony, Strange Cargo follows its brutal convict characters right out of melodrama and into parable. Clark Gable and Joan Crawford are superb as the man and the woman, fallen and blind to the salvation that lies close at hand. In addition to a surprisingly sympathetic prison warden—when is a prison really not a prison?—this salvation is represented by Ian Hunter’s Cambreau, a stunning invention who slowly insinuates his way into the plot, then clearly emerges not just as a Christ figure, but as Christ himself. By all accounts most contemporary audiences were stumped by this turn, but sympathetic viewers may see how beautifully judged and calibrated it is. Borzage avoids contrivance and preachiness by the gentle elegance of his direction, by giving his scenes the pace and duration of our spiritual struggles. As the convicts flee Cambreau essentially stands at the door and knocks. There is grace, after all the characters can do; they change a bit, remain subject to pain and sin and death, and slowly start to glimpse the realities and reach for the relief at hand. “That’s a stupid thing to give up for a worthless mug like me.” In a dispensation that can’t help but resonate with viewers in, say, and LDS community, one of the most gratifying blessings and emblems of this film’s atonement is what promises to be the eternal union of the man and the woman. Essential viewing.