On the fictional Pacific island of Talua in French Polynesia, some 500 miles from Tahiti, Father Doonan has been relieved of his duties by Father Perreau. Father Doonan has fallen out of favor with the island's residents. This is partly because he is an alcoholic, and also because he stumbled on the island's carefully hidden secret: Hansen's Disease (leprosy) among the children of the islands. He built a hospital for the children by the island's volcano. Doonan regularly goes from door to door on the island, trying to persuade the islanders to donate money or goods to the leper colony. However, the inhabitants have grown tired of Doonan's demands for donations and view him as an irritation.
Meanwhile, three convicts – Harry, Charlie, and Marcel – en route for Tahiti, make an unexpected stop on the island, and they are put to work at the leper hospital. All is seemingly normal until the island's volcano begins to erupt and the governor orders an evacuation. The governor cannot reach the freighter that has just left and plans to evacuate the island with one seaplane and a schooner.
The children are still on the slope of the volcano in the hospital and Father Doonan is desperate to rescue them. When the freighter suddenly appears back at the island, Father Doonan convinces the governor to drop some men to rescue the children. The schooner will wait until 4:00 pm the next day for them before it has to leave because of the tides.
In the hope of getting their sentences commuted, the convicts agree to parachute to the hospital with Father Doonan to rescue the children and staff. They face fire, lava, and earthquakes as time runs out.
Eventually most of the children and the staff are rescued and board the schooner. Prisoner Marcel drowns in a mud pit. Charlie is fatally injured when the bridge he is holding up collapses after everyone else gets safely across. Father Doonan decides to stay with him. Harry sees the children and staff to the schooner and goes back to wait with his friends. He is trapped on one side of the chasm while Father Doonan and Charlie are on the other. Father Doonan gives Charlie the last rites when he dies and begins to ask for forgiveness for his sins as the entire island explodes (à la Krakatoa).Spencer Tracy as Father Matthew Doonan
Frank Sinatra as Harry
Kerwin Mathews as Father Joseph Perreau
Jean-Pierre Aumont as Jacques
Grégoire Aslan as Marcel
Alexander Scourby as The Governor
Barbara Luna as Camille
Cathy Lewis as Matron
Bernie Hamilton as Charlie
Martin Brandt as Doctor Wexler
Lou Merrill as Aristide Giraud
Marcel Dalio as Gaston
Tom Middleton as Paul
Ann Duggan as Clarisse
Louis Mercier as Corporal
Michele Montau as Margot
Shot on location in Hawaii and California; a "volcano" had to be specially built on farmland outside of Fallbrook, California, which was detonated using almost a ton of explosives. The explosion nearly killed the helicopter pilot and camera man who were filming it. The effects were considered so good that they have been reused as stock footage over the years.
Because of Tracy's demand of top billing in any movie he starred in, Sinatra ceded top-billing in order to secure Tracy for the film. The film was the most expensive that Columbia Pictures had ever made.
The film's hazardous walk to the other side of the island, by a group of people trapped by the volcano, was largely copied in the volcano disaster film When Time Ran Out (1980).
Among mostly good, if not glowing reviews, Variety commented on the "exceptional special effects" and praised the acting, noting that "Tracy delivers one of his more colorful portrayals in his hard-drinking cleric who has lost faith in his God, walloping over a character which sparks entire action of film. Sinatra's role, first-class but minor in comparison, is overshadowed in interest by Aslan, one of the convicts in a stealing part who lightens some of the more dramatic action."
NME would say that "Although slightly sentimental, the films comes off well thanks to messrs Tracy and Sinatra."