The new British Resident of the Welcome Islands, Ewart Gray (Donald Sinden), arrives in full uniform by ship, anticipating the excitement of a posting in the tropical Indian Ocean. He is informed that the last Governor had shot himself from "loneliness," which dampens his spirits a little. On landing, he finds his quarters are not ready for him, and he is invited to stay by the local missionary Owen Jones (Paul Rogers) and his sister Martha (Glynis Johns). He soon finds their company, while friendly, a little overbearing, and returns to stay at his own residence despite it not being finished. That evening, he is visited by the only other European resident of the island, Edward Wilson (Robert Newton), known as the "Honorable Ted," who introduces himself and drinks a large amount of Gray's whisky. Despite having been warned that Ted was a scoundrel, Gray soon warms to him, finding him well-spoken and obviously educated.
A year after arriving on the island, Gray is disappointed to see Ted arrested and brought up before him in court for encouraging a girl at the mission to steal some money which he then spent on drink before becoming involved in a drunken brawl. Gray breaks with precedent and sentences Ted to three months hard labour on a neighbouring island. While there, the local headman (Michael Hordern) suffers from appendicitis. Because her brother, who functions as a local doctor as well as running the mission, is unwell, his sister travels out and successfully performs the operation. She nurses the headman back to health, while also tending to a local elephant that had injured its trunk after being attacked by a crocodile. On the way back, she travels in a boat with Ted, who has now finished his sentence. She strongly disapproves of Ted, and the fact that he and the crew are drunk on arrack. She is horrified when the propeller fails and they are forced to spend the night on a small desert island. She is convinced that Ted will try and molest her, but to her surprise he leaves her alone all night – except to put some blankets on her to stop her becoming cold.
When they return to the capital, she is now slightly infatuated with Ted, in whom she can now see signs of goodness. He remains repulsed by her, and ignores her gentle attempts to get to know him better. His drunken behaviour on the island carries on as before, and he is involved in another brawl. This time Gray is forced to sentence him to deportation to Australia. His departure is delayed by a sudden outbreak of cholera which sweeps the islands. With all available hands needed in the capital, only Martha can be spared to go to the northern islands to treat the outbreak there. Because the governor and her brother are worried that the spread of disease might encourage a native rebellion they are hesitant to let her go. Ultimately they agree, provided she takes Ted with her. At first he refuses to help her when he is approached, but later guiltily agrees to join her.
Once they reach the northern islands, they discover the inhabitants have become hostile to them, blaming the spread of the disease on the Europeans. However Martha persuades them to let her help, reminding them of how she saved the life of the headman months before. They assent to her presence, and she and Ted throw themselves into the task of fighting the disease. Slowly they grow extremely fond of each other, and finally embrace. Each has made an emotional journey, Martha from a repressed state to being a more sensually aware woman while Ted has changed from a morally dubious character to being a more upstanding person.
After failing to save the life of a young woman, they are suddenly seized by a mob and threatened with death. Pegged out, they are about to be trampled to death by an elephant, but the animal stops at the last moment, recognizing her as the woman who had nursed his trunk months before. Astonished by this miraculous survival, the native inhabitants let them go. Back in the capital, Martha and Ted marry and he takes up playing the organ to accompany her in the mission. Gray takes some satisfaction from the fact that the number of deaths have been dramatically reduced since the last outbreak of disease.Glynis Johns as Martha Jones
Robert Newton as Edward Wilson
Donald Sinden as Ewart Gray
Paul Rogers as Owen Jones
Donald Pleasence as Tromp
Walter Crisham as Vederala
Michael Hordern as The Headman
Auric Lorand as Alfred, Major Domo
Tony Quinn as Ship Captain
Ah Chong Choy as Wang the Barkeep
Ronald Lewis as Headman's Son
Donald Sinden, then a contract star for the Rank Organisation at Pinewood Studios, recalls:
"Robert Newton should have been perfect in the part. It is no secret that he was a very heavy drinker and recently, but not for the first time, he had been warned by his doctors that if he did not stop he would more than likely pop off in the very near future. When we began Beachcomber he had been on the wagon for three months and a sorry sight he was: gone were the thrown-back head and the fiery eyes; the jerky gestures made by his arms were now limp and seemed to lack purpose. It was tragic to realise that he had now reached a stage when he relied so totally on alcohol to inject spirit into his performance. He was listless and just moped around the studio, hardly talking to anyone. He knew he was not giving his best and this worried him. Every morning we greeted each other in the make-up room, where he stripped himself down to a pair of none too clean shorts-style baggy underpants, sat down, leaned back against the head-rest and stared with his large bloodshot eyes at the ceiling. Occasionally a low moan escaped his lips. He confided to me that he was not happy with the film; things were not altogether successful in his private life; he was toying with an idea of doing Shakespeare's Richard III in Australia, but generally his career was not going as well as he could wish... Early one morning I was seated silently in my make-up chair when suddenly the door crashed open. There stood Newton, absolutely plastered, his eyes blazing. He staggered across the room, thrust his face into mine and with slobbering lips and flashing eyes he embarked on the most thrilling rendering I have ever heard of "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer..." (What a Richard III he would have been!) From that moment he really took off in the film, but sadly there were only a few days to go - and sadder still, that last bout of drinking was followed shortly after by his death".
The New York Times review called it a "competently wrought Technicolor remake of W. Somerset Maugham's 'Vessel of Wrath'" that did not measure up to the earlier 1938 adaptation which featured "inspired characterizations by Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester".
The film received two stars out of five in the Radio Times: Guide to Films, which praised the performance of Robert Newton as Ted and his homage to the earlier portrayal of the role by Charles Laughton in 1938.