The Prisoner of Shark Island (1938)

There’s no escaping it, films just aren’t this solid now a days.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is not John Ford’s most famous picture. It takes a backseat to The Searchers, Stagecoach, and a handful of other films with understandable reason. Ford is still finding his voice or rather his pitch, but he is working with very Fordian elements of honor, injustice, patriotism, and sense. The wrongful imprisonment of Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who unknowingly fixed the broken leg of President Lincoln’s assassin, gives Ford a concrete historical drama to build upon. As a craftsman first and an artist second, Ford delivers a sound, slightly dramatized story while remaining neither nationalistic nor polemic, but rather genuine and proud.

The film starts with the end of the civil war. Merry bands of men roam the streets, playing patriotic tunes. At beneath the windows of the White House they await for word from Mr. Lincoln. He offers up no strong advice, but rather requests that the band play a tune he has always loved, but felt it untimely to play, that is until now. The song is Dixie and while this event may never have occurred it signifies a diplomatic Lincoln, looking to unify the country once more.

Next comes a night at the theatre and every school child in America knows what happens next. Many even know that John Wilkes Booth got away, though his leg was badly broken when he leaped to the stage. Far fewer students would know that a Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland unknowingly aided Booth in his flee from the authorities. Though it has now been speculated that Mudd and Booth has meet before this faithful night, Mudd had no way of knowing that the President has just been assassinated or that Booth has just become the most notorious actor in American history.

What happens afterward is a chapter of American history that many school books leave out and few people learn about. With Booth being shot dead while resisting arrest, those that helped him conspire to kill the President and those that helped him flee are brought to trial. They are not given a civil trial, but rather a court martial. Before the trial, Ford takes us behind the scenes were a strong edict is being set forth. In the hopes of saving the nation from further strive or a renewed civil war, non-guilty verdicts are unacceptable.

Ford wastes little time with the seven other defendants, choosing instead to give Dr. Mudd his moment. Warner Baxter plays the punished doctor and while he’s not the dynamic lead Ford would find in Henry Fonda or John Wayne, Baxter plays the part of dignified victim with earnest. He knows the jury is rigged, but before he goes he pleads his case, decries his innocence, and hopes that the guilt of those sentencing him will sit heavy in their hearts. The trial concludes with a tension filled moment wherein the wife of Dr. Mudd, must wait and see if her husband will be marched to the gallows or not. Of course, the title of the film spares the audience from such tension. Still, Ford’s developing mastery of the craft, his alternating between the dread-filled eyes of Mrs. Mudd and the mob revelry surrounding the hanging, backed by the swelling sounds of military drums, manages to raise a few hairs.

Saved from the noose, Dr. Mudd is condemned to a slow death at Ft. Jefferson on the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys – also known as Shark Island. The fortress prison gets its macabre name from the deadly creatures that swim in the moat and make escape all but impossible. Inside the prison, Mudd finds the atmosphere to be just has hostile and blood thirsty as the moat. Mudd’s name proceeds him and both guard and prisoner alike look at him, not as a man who helped another man, but as a man who helped kill Lincoln. No one has more contempt for Mudd than Sgt. Rankin, a gaunt, sadistic guard played with great relish by John Carradine. Even the prisons own physician Dr. MacIntyre can find no sympathy for Mudd.

Hoping to clear his name, Mudd takes matters into his own hands and plans an escape. On the outside Mrs. Mudd and her Johnny Reb father wait in boat. Inside the prison, Buck, a former slave of Dr. Mudd, one who has been sentenced along side Mudd, helps the good doctor out. The doctor makes it past the sharks, but is apprehended and brought back to the prison where he is then placed in solitary confinement, along with Buck.

Yellow Fever hits fort and when the Dr. MacIntyre falls striken Dr. Mudd is called upon to save the lives of those trapped on Shark Island. This being the grand conclusion the film has been working up to, the point where the beaten victim rises up and saves those who have abused him it is some what forgivable that these last scenes are overwrought with grand dramatics. Baxter, though having spent weeks in solitary confinement, runs about with great energy and grand gestures demanding windows be broken out and cannons be fired all while hurricane windows torrential rains blow more chaos into each scene.

In the end, the doctor saves the day. For his heroism Mudd is pardoned, and allowed to return home. If there is anything Ford was a master at filming it was a homecoming.

If there are moments when Ford is still finding himself it is most often a moment of intended humor. Butch, his wife who is in labor with their twelth child, Dr. Mudd’s southern-fried father-in-law, not to mention a stockade full of negro soldiers all serve as comic aside in what is otherwise a straightforward drama. Their interrupting jests feel more out of place than they do off-color, though I am certain that much of today’s politically correct audience will be outraged at how many of the African-Americans are depicted. Sadly, they are not given much to work with. For that matter, few of the supporting roles are given much to work with. Neither Ford nor screenwriter Nunnally Johnson give any sense depth to Mrs. Mudd or Buck. While one could chalk this up to a sign of the times, I can think of many modern films that simply ornament their male heroes with shallow, pretty wives and use comical Black side kicks for relief.

All that is a minor quibble as there are many more good things to champion in this film. Of particular note in The Prisoner of Shark Island are Ford’s experiments with chiaroscuro lighting. The cold stone walls and metal bars of prisoner are bathed in pools of light and hidden in seas of darkness. The immaculate transfer exhibited on the Masters of Cinema DVD is a thing of pure marvel. One can almost swear that the film is not just black and white, but silver as well. The images here feel far removed from my memory of dusty John Ford westerns.

Also, there is an instance in the film of a most interesting, but probably not unique transitory cut. At the tail end of one scene we witness a young man rushing towards a door in the center of the frame. The camera is set us as a wide shot and just as he reaches the door and gets it half-way open the film cuts to a medium shot of Dr. Mudd exiting a different room and pulling the door shut behind him. This combination of entering and exiting mixed with the jump forward in camera position is both jolting and exciting. I am certain directors since have used this technique and perhaps a few before, but to my memory this is my first encounter with a match cut of this sort. In a way, this cut defies the thirty degree rule, jumping in from a wide to a medium, without repositioning the camera thirty degrees. Ford does this one other time in the film, but not as a transition between two scenes. There it feels like a mistake, but here from exit to entrance it feels innovative, but not showy. Though the film shows time and again the high level of craft and expertise exhibited in Ford’s filmmaking.

Sadly, they don’t make things like they used to; buildings or films. Why buildings are on my mind, I am not certain. Perhaps the thought of buildings comes to mind because John Ford is a corner stone of American film making or maybe I’ve been reading too much James Howard Kunstler. Ford, like most cornerstones, is an important, vital, even necessary element, but one easily overlooked or slated for demolition. Especially, when you consider the vulgarity of modern cinema.

Today, buildings and movies are designed to stand out, and often they stand for nothing. They are given to the flights of fancy of CAD designers and CGI wizards. There is more thought given to what can be done, than what should be done. Architects and filmmakers today are simply constructing monsters because they have found that technology allows them to do so. There is no consideration for what effect those monsters have once unleashed.

Case in point Chattanooga:

The mansion on the hill, while not the most idealistic of structures, what with its connections to slavery, the language of the structure itself dates back to the Romans and Greeks. It is a building built upon a vocabulary of architecture, where as the monstrosity next to it, damn near consuming it, is simply put a vulgarity spat forth from an architect looking to make a name for himself.

John Ford built his movies on a solid foundation of static shots and judicious camera movement. A film such as The Prisoner of Shark Island is built shot by shot, much like an older building was built brick by brick. While, The Prisoner of Shark Island may not be the most crowning achievement in cinematic artistry it is still today, nearly 75 years later, a solid piece of work and very pleasant to they eye. Were it a building it would be a courthouse, though that might be a bit ironic given the injustice at work in the film. Still, the film like a courthouse designed during the American Renaissance stands tall, if not overlooked, and in its design one can see both pride for the past and hope for the future. It symbolizes both the best and the worst attributes of America and its does so in a stately manner


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