The Spiral Road, metaphorically, leads to God. If filmgoers find themselves slightly agape to discover Rock Hudson traveling this road, they will be no more taken aback than the character Rock plays, an aggressive, self-centered young doctor out from The Netherlands for a five-year tour of duty in the tropical Dutch East Indies.
Dr. Anton Drager (Rock Hudson) worships his own ego, and he has a cool contempt for anyone who does not do the same. He intends to pick the brains of a rumpled Rabelaisian master of tropical medicine named Brits Jansen (Burl Ives), and trade the findings for fame and fortune back home.
"Great balls of betel nut," roars Ives as he looks deep into the drawing-room eyes of the new arrival, "they've sent me a totok" which is Dutch slang for greenhorn. Straightaway, Ives saves scene after scene of the picture by stealing it. Guzzling what he calls P.G. (pure gin) from a half-gallon tin, charging and trumpeting like a white war elephant in a Panama suit, Ives produces his gutsiest acting triumph since Big Daddy.
He schools the totok irascibly and well. Ives shows him selfless compassion in a colony of lepers, superstitious fear and grief in a plague-ridden village that must be dynamited hut by hut, aristocratic pride and dignity in a top-hatted native chief who tries to save his rat-ridden palace from Ives's sanitizing torches by playing billiards for it. These scenes, and the hot tropic scenery, are stubbornly convincing. Ives cannot school Hudson to believe in God, perhaps because his own version harbors more fear than love: "Out here in the jungle when a man doesn't believe in God, He pokes him with His finger and makes him squirm."
In the last third of the film, Hudson is driven to the babbling brink of insanity by a witch doctor in an isolated jungle outpost, and his once-scoffing lips utter a prayer. At this point, Rock Hudson abruptly begins to look less like Gary Grant and more like Dostoevsky. Neither disguise helps him to make any acting distinction between an encounter with God and a bout with the malarial mosquito.