Mark Conrad, a debonair Anglo-Austrian former playboy and junk owner, now an alcoholic down-and-out, is expelled from Hong Kong. He is placed on an ancient ferry boat, the Fa Tsan (known to its crew as the Fat Annie), despite the protests of the pompous owner, Captain Cecil Hart.
He travels to Macau, but is refused entry for the same reason he was expelled from Hong Kong. He engages the captain in a card game and wins the right to 'live' on board. His charming manner endears him to the crew and to an attractive teacher Liz Ferrers, a regular passenger.
The ferry is nearly wrecked in a typhoon, but Conrad wrests command from the cowardly and drunken captain and saves the ship. Drifting out of control near the Chinese coast, they are boarded by pirates, led by Chinese-American Johnny Sing-up. Sing-up reveals that Hart is a former conman who won the ship in a crooked card-game.
Conrad becomes a hero when he saves the ship, and is allowed to stay in Hong Kong. He is tempted to continue his budding relationship with Liz, but decides to resist it until he has 'beaten the dragon'.
Curd Jürgens as Mark Bertram Conrad
Orson Welles as Captain Cecil Hart
Sylvia Syms as Miss Liz Ferrers
Jeremy Spenser as Miguel Henriques, 1st Officer
Noel Purcell as Joe Skinner, ship's engineer
Margaret Withers as Miss Carter
John Wallace as Hong Kong Police Inspector
Roy Chiao as Johnny Sing-up
Shelley Shen as Foo Soo
Louis Seto as Tommy Cheng
Milton Reid as Yen, Sing-Up's Partner
The film was one of a number of movies made by Rank to appeal to the international market, involving colour and location filming. Rank had rationalised its film production arm, decreasing overall output but putting more money in a certain number of films. Rank chairman John Davis said, "It is vital that the greatest possible financial encouragement should be given to the making of important films: for these the public will gladly pay.The emphasis will be on the more expensive and important film."
The film was to originally star Burl Ives and contract star Peter Finch. However this soon became Curt Jurgens and Orson Welles. The movie had one of the largest budgets in the history of Rank.
Lewis Gilbert described Ferry to Hong Kong as "my nightmare film". Orson Welles, he said, "never cared about his fellow actors, never cared about the director". Gilbert says "everything was wrong with the film - principally Orson Welles".
Originally Jurgens was meant to play the ship captain and Welles the tramp but Sir John Davis, head of Rank, insisted they change roles. The film was shot entirely on location. In Hong Kong the production team bought a boat that could be converted into a paddle steamer and used local labor to build a full sized studio stage and crane for the CinemaScope camera. The film was shot with guide tracks and every line of dialogue was re-recorded and re-synched in Pinewood. Welles and Jurgens hated each other and Gilbert had trouble filming them in the same shot. Welles insisted on wearing a false nose and at one point held up filming for two days while he could find his nose.
The film received bad reviews in England and was a disaster at the box office.
The Los Angeles Times called it "a very funny comedy-drama".