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Ferdinand de Lesseps (Tyrone Power) is one of France’s most promising young diplomats. As the story opens, he is engaged in a tennis match, applauded enthusiastically by Countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young). Another onlooker is President Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames), who has observed the beautiful Countess and her enthusiasm for de Lesseps.
De Lesseps and the Countess attend a ball to which they have been invited by Louis Napoleon. One of the amusements at the ball is a fortune teller. The young couple and their friend, Renee, just for fun decide to have their fortunes told. Eugenie is told that she will wear a crown. Ferdinand de Lesseps is told that he will dig ditches, which brings loud laughs from his friends.
Ferdinand is sent to Egypt, but, before he goes, he asks Eugenie to marry him. Though she loves him, she says no, saying that she couldn‘t rush into a shot in the dark like that.
He is very disappointed, but tells her that he understands, and they part as friends.
Soon after arriving in Alexandria, he meets young Toni Pellerin
(Annabella), who is swimming nude in the Mediterranean. She begs him to help bring her donkey back to her so that she can retrieve her clothes, which are inside a little dressing room attached to the donkey. After a short amount of teasing her about her predicament, he helps her out. As she’s dressing, she lets him know that she finds him very attractive. As he helps her out of the dressing room, the uncooperative donkey causes both of them to land back into the water.
Ferdinand shows up to meet his father, Mathieu de Lesseps (Henry Stephenson) and
British diplomat Malcolm Cameron (Nigel Bruce) a bit unkempt, as he doesn’t have time to change clothes from his encounter with Toni. Nonetheless, his father is happy to see him and he gets along well with the British diplomat.
Ferdinand’s father tells Ferdinand to become friends with Prince Sa'id (J. Edward Bromberg), the awkward son of the Egyptian viceroy, in order to curry the President‘s favor. Soon after, Mathieu leaves to return to Paris, leaving Ferdinand in charge as consul. Ferdinand does become good friends with Sa’id, teaching him many things, such as fencing, horseback riding, and, in general, is just a good friend to him.
While Ferdinand and Toni are caught in a storm in the Isthmus, they take shelter in some old ruins. After the storm has passed, Ferdinand is looking across the sands when the idea of building a canal to connect the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea occurs to him, thus making sense of the fortune teller‘s prediction that he would dig ditches. As he looks across the sands, he comments that he believes that he has found a way to not only serve France but to serve the world.
The second part of the fortune teller’s prediction comes true when Countess Eugenie marries Louis Napoleon. Ferdinand is saddened by the news, but he has expect that part of the prediction to be fulfilled, too, and his attention is now focused on his own dream of building the canal.
The remainder of the story tells of his struggles to obtain funding, workers, and equipment for the construction of the Suez canal. Political strife in Paris complicates his life and the project. He must deal with the betrayal of Louis Napoleon; with the resulting death of his father; with sabotage of the canal’s construction; with natural disaster. All the while, his truest friend and supporter is Toni, who is always by his side to support him, encouraging him to pursue his dream, even when it seems that all is lost.
In the end, the canal does get built, but at a very big personal price for Ferdinand.
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