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Rena, a prostitute who has used illegal identity papers to travel from Austria to Las Vegas, is rejected by her boss, who sends her to Sophie Raditz in Boca Grande, South America. On her South American bound plane are retired professor Henry Spanger and his wife Martha, and Pete Boswick, who has been ordered by his mobster boss, Thomas J. Malone, to safeguard his young son Tommy in Boca Grande until he can join them. The plane stops in Panama, where they are to be joined by Jud Ellis, his fiancée Louise Milhorne, and pilots Bill Larnegan and Joe Brooks. Joe is concerned about Bill's apparent dishevelment, but stewardess Maria Alvarez assures him that Bill is a competent war hero who has fallen on low times. Pete, who resents "playing nursemaid" to a small boy, leaves Tommy in Maria's care. When he reads a newspaper report that Malone has been murdered, however, he realizes that Tommy is now an orphan, and races back to the plane to join him. The plane flies to San Dimas, California, where everyone settles into the airport for a long layover. There, Pete leaves Tommy unattended, prompting first Louise and then Rena to fuss over him. Spurned by Louise, Rena approaches Bill at the bar. Irritated by Rena's awareness of his drinking, Bill roughly informs her that she would be better off staying in San Dimas rather than falling under Sophie's grasp. Upon learning that the plane will not take off on time, Ellis confronts Bill, who admits that they are awaiting Vasquel, a murderer who is to be executed in Boca Grande. Soon, Vasquel arrives in the care of Crimp, a brash bounty hunter who takes Pete's gun from him "for safekeeping." In the air, as Joe wonders what the sweet-natured Louise sees in Ellis, Henry and Vasquel converse about the Javaro Indians, headhunters who live in the jungles over which they are flying. As Vasquel describes their grisly methods for shrinking heads, Crimp reads aloud the news of Malone's death, causing Tommy to wonder where his daddy is. A storm soon arises, and although Bill struggles to avoid it, the plane cannot fly high enough to skirt the driving rain. As the passengers grow increasingly nervous, a canister of compressed air bursts into flame, causing Crimp to panic and pull out his gun. Joe is forced to knock out Crimp to restrain him, but soon after another canister slams through the cabin door, tearing it off its hinges. Maria spots Tommy wandering toward the door and as she rushes to save him, the air pressure from the open door sucks her out of the plane. After an engine fails, Bill manages a crash landing with minimal additional damage. In the morning, the storm has cleared and the group surveys the damage, including the broken engine and destroyed radio. Bill announces that they are so far off course that search planes will likely not be able to find them. When Ellis complains that Bill is taking control, Vasquel, who has remained the calmest, points out that by law, the pilot is the highest-ranking member of the group. He then reveals that he has Crimp's gun, but willingly gives it to Bill to help keep the peace. Joe organizes the men to create a signal fire, while Henry and Pete gather food and the women prepare to cook it. Due to Pete's sharp shooting, they enjoy a hearty supper, during which Henry leads the others in reciting The Lord's Prayer. Everyone joins in except Vasquel, who wanders to the edge of the group but listens intently. Six days later, as Crimp hears native drums and grows paranoid, Joe tells Louise his plan to fix the engine, but they are interrupted by Ellis, who is jealous of Louise's attentions and complains that escape strategies are hopeless. Meanwhile, Rena and Bill share a drink, confiding that neither cares about being saved. Their deepening friendship revitalizes them, however, and Bill agrees to drink less and help Joe with his plan. Over the next few days, everyone toils to repair the engine. After Louise spots Rena flirting with Joe, the two women fight in the stream, only to collapse in laughter. Crimp overhears Vasquel reveal to Henry that the Jivaro, who are preparing to attack, will stop drumming just before they ambush the camp. That night, Crimp steals the gun and takes off into the jungle. With no way now to hunt for food, Ellis panics, frightening Tommy. Joe announces that the engine is repairable but now must be rebuilt, news that pleases everyone but Vasquel. That night, Ellis gets drunk, forcing Bill to knock him out, after which Louise indicates to Joe that she is no longer wearing her engagement ring. The next day, Henry and Martha ask Vasquel who he murdered, and the convict reveals that he attempted to assassinate a dictator and hit an innocent bystander. He explains that he left Germany to search the world for freedom, but now no longer believes that "civilization" exists. Finally, the plane is repaired, but soon after, Tommy wanders off into the jungle. When Pete and Rena find the boy standing near Crimp's decapitated body, Pete takes the gun and goes to ward off attackers. Vasquel warns the group that they must leave soon, but Bill refuses to take off without Pete, who soon appears, mortally wounded from a spear. The remaining nine board the plane, but their combined weight causes the engine to fail. At night, as the drumming intensifies, Bill explains that the plane can carry only four adults and Tommy. Realizing that this means death for the remaining four, the group is at a loss to decide who should go, until Vasquel holds them at gunpoint and announces that he will choose. While they prepare the plane, Louise and Joe confess their love for each other, and Bill gives his money to Rena, instructing her to use it to care for Tommy. When Henry and Martha inform Vasquel that, as the oldest members of the group, they will volunteer to stay behind, Vasquel reveals that they have restored his faith in humanity. Suddenly, the drums stop. Vasquel announces that Bill, Louise, Joe and Rena will leave, after which Ellis, infuriated, attacks Vasquel. The convict is forced to kill him, then herds the group into the plane and watches them take off. As the natives approach, Vasquel, with only two bullets left in the gun, shoots the Spangers to spare them from a more horrifying death. Praying, he awaits his fate.