Based on Marcus Clarke's classic novel, originally published in 1870 as His Natural Life, the story tells of convict Rufus Dawes, who has been wrongfully accused of a crime and sent to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land for the term of his natural life. In his attempts to escape the colony, Dawes falls in love with Sylvia (a warden's daughter) and confronts his sinister lookalike John Rex and the evil convict Gabbett.
American director/screenwriter Norman Dawn's adaptation strays from the original book considerably. For example, the ending sees the fate of Rufus and Sylvia, adrift on a raft in the ocean, left in the balance, whereas Clarke's original story has the pair drown. However, the film retains a strong, visual style, especially in climactic crowd scenes.
National Film and Sound Archive historian Graham Shirley recalls the restoration of For the Term of His Natural Life.