I was about to go to bed the other night when the late movie came on. It was an old black and white film called Strange Cargo. I thought that I would watch for ten minutes and then go to bed. However before I knew it I was engrossed and I stayed up and watched the whole film. The movie tells the story of a group of inmates escaping from the notorious French penal colony known as Devil’s Island in French Guyana.
The first third of the film focuses on the escape and the sexual tension between the two lead characters, and so you completely miss the entrance of the character Cambreau (played by Ian Hunter pictured left in the photo), who initially appears to simply be one of the escapees. However as the film progesses you begin to notice that there is something strange about Cambreau, while the other escapees hobble and scramble their way to freedom, Cambreau walks with a strange lightness, purpose and confidence in his step.
While the other prisoners deviously betray each other, Cambreau shows incredible self sacrifice, often placing his life at risk to save others. He says little, but when he does talk he makes sense, slowly the prisoners begin to look to him for advice and decision making. While one prisoner who is religous spews judgement and hatred upon his fellow escapees, Cambreau treats each prisoner no matter what their background with humanity.
As several prisoners confront their deaths, Cambreau whispers to the escapees in their last moments, helping them to face death with dignity, and aiding them in their last moments to see the error of their ways and make peace with their God. Cambreau stands up to the prisoners who attempt to cheat him, provocatively forcing them to confront their own issues, and to gain self awareness.
As the film progresses you can’t help but feel that there is something mysteriously magnetic about Cambreau. As the escapees reach their final destination, you realise that the Strange Cargo that they are carrying is Cambreau himself. The final clue of the film as to Cambreau’s identity is given in the final shot of the film as he walks off in to a dark corridor and an old sailor crosses himself. You realise that the escape is just a metaphor for life, and that what you have been watching is a contemporary account of Jesus’ incarnation on earth, Cambreau is Christ.
For a film shot in 1940 I have to admit I was quite shocked with the level of religious symbolism in the film. At the time this film was seen as quite daring, the Catholic church felt that some of the content of the film went beyond the sensibilities of the day. I have to admit this is definitely one of the better religious film that I have seen. If it ever again comes on late one night make sure you stay up!