Peter Willems (Trevor Howard), a selfish and ambitious man, is accused of stealing in his position as manager of a shipping port operation near Singapore. After he is dismissed for his misconduct he reacquaints himself with the trading ship Capt. Lingard (Ralph Richardson) who befriended him as a 12-year-old boy. Lingard agrees to help Willems regain his reputation by taking him to a trading village located up a difficult-to-navigate channel near the coast of Batam.
Lingard's son-in-law, Elmer Almayer (Robert Morley), operates a trading operation for Capt. Lingard in the village. Lingard asks Almayer to take Willems under his wing and teach him the business. While Lingard is away on one of his sea trips, Willems abuses his trust, seduces the village chieftain's daughter Aissa (Kerima), attempts to steal Almayer's business operation, humiliates Almayer before the villagers, and shares the navigation secrets of the channel with an Arab trader who competes with Capt. Lingard. Lingard returns to discover the mess Willems has made and confronts Willems – who has now been condemned by the villagers because of the shame he brought to the frail and dying chieftain. He abandons Willems to live in isolation and exile.
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