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In a Communist Chinese prison cell, Merchant Marine Tom Wilder has remained sane for two years by talking to an imaginary woman he calls "Baby." When strangers offer him a means of escape, he accepts and a native, Big Han, takes him by sampan to the small village of Chiku Shan, and given a place to stay in the home of an American, Cathy Grainger. The Communists, in need of Western medical knowledge, have detained her father, a physician who came to the country several years earlier. Tom meets with the village elders, led by Mr. Tso, who explains that the people have spent a year planning an escape to Hong Kong. The 180 villagers, Tom learns, financed the bribe that got him released because they need an experienced sea pilot to navigate a boat through three-hundred-mile Formosa Strait, known as "Blood Alley." For the trip, the villagers plan to steal an antiquated stern-wheeler, which is being used as a ferryboat. They will first have to evade a patrol boat, then sail at night through the fog in order to elude Chinese gunboats in the strait. Although the villagers have carefully worked out all details of the escape, there are other problems: A village family headed by the ardent Communist supporter Old Feng are not privy to the plans, but would be blamed and executed for the disappearance of the rest of the villagers, so they will be abducted and taken along against their will. At first, Tom considers the villagers' scheme impossible, but later, mulling it over with Baby, becomes intrigued by the challenge of freeing the villagers from Communism. When soldiers come looking for Tom, Mr. Tso hides him in a coffin. Tom has left a map he has drawn from memory at Cathy's house and, fearing that it might alert the soldiers to the escape plan, he sneaks back to the house and kills an officer who is trying to rape her. The other soldiers leave before they realize their comrade is missing, and with mixed emotions, Cathy thanks Tom, and admits that she could have feelings for him. Although Tom is physically attracted to Cathy, he gruffly tells her not to "kid herself." Later, without Cathy's knowledge, her maid Susu suggests to Tom that her employer would make a good wife. Tom scares the maid away by pretending to love her instead, thus curtailing further attempts at matchmaking. As part of the escape plan, Mr. Tso's American-educated nephew Tack, the ferry's chief engineer, intentionally ruins the boat's antiquated boiler so that the authorities will install a new one. The night before they plan to steal the steamboat, Mr. Tso reports that Dr. Grainger, who was ordered to tend an ailing commissar, was put to death after his patient died. He asks Tom to tell Cathy, but Tom procrastinates. The next day, Tom, Tack and Big Han use smoke bombs and a replica of the steamboat's smoke stack to create the illusion that the boat has been destroyed in a fire. Tom then pilots the boat to the village, where it is loaded and boarded. When Cathy insists on staying behind with her father, Tom slaps her and brusquely tells her about the doctor's murder. After everyone is on board, they lure the patrol boat into a trap and sail away. Shortly after entering the strait, they encounter several Chinese navy gunboats, but the sailors laugh at the antiquated steamboat and let it pass. Although Tom is beginning to find Cathy hard to resist, he argues with her when she tells him her plans to go ashore at Honghn Bay to confirm her father's death. After villagers discover that members of the Feng family poisoned their food supply, the tainted food is discarded and Tom orders stringent rationing. In addition, fresh water and wood for the boiler is running low. During a storm, one of the Fengs attacks Tom in the pilothouse. In the ensuing fight, Tom knocks out his assailant, but suffers many bruises and wounds. Cathy nurses his injuries, and the next morning declares that she loves him. Tom replies tactlessly that he will not want her around in Hong Kong. At Honghn Bay, the travelers gather wood from the ruins of wrecked ships, along with fresh water and fish. When they are ready to leave, Tom puts the Fengs ashore to save food, but then offers them a choice between continuing on the journey or remaining with Old Feng, who has instigated the troublemaking. The family unanimously decides to abandon their elder, who is killed when gunboats unexpectedly shoot at them. After rescuing Cathy, who confirmed her father's death, Tom escapes the gunboats by hiding the steamboat in shallow, foliage-filled water and turning off the engine. The villagers then get out and pull the boat out of danger. The next evening, after navigating the steamboat into the Hong Kong port, Tom says good-bye to "Baby" and tells Cathy he wants her to stay with him.