Sunday, July 13, 2014

The John Ford Blogathon: The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)


The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The John Ford Blogathon, currently underway from July 7-13 and hosted by Vulnavia at Krell Laboratories and Anna at Bemused and Nonplussed.  For a complete list of participating blogs and the films/topics discussed, click here.  And here.  (And herehereherehere…and here.)


A famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) from a reporter (Carlton Young) who’s listened with rapt attention at how tenderfoot-lawyer-now-Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) accomplished the titular task in that film sums up the oeuvre of director John Ford better than a thousand essays on his works: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Take, for instance, the 1946 Western classic My Darling Clementine—the epic tale of lawman Wyatt Earp.  If you took your cues from a cherished Leave It to Beaver rerun—whereupon Beav writes a book report on Dumas’ The Three Musketeers merely by watching the 1939 Ritz Brothers romp—and used Clementine as your main source…chances are your history teacher would flunk you after s/he had gotten up off the floor from laughing.  Clementine is inaccurate as all get-out…and yet it’s far more entertaining than, say, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)—which does pay a bit more attention to the historical record (even though Corral, too, fudges a few facts).

Such is the story of The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), John Ford’s biopic on Dr. Samuel A. Mudd—history’s best-known victim of circumstance.  In the Ford film, the good doctor receives a visit one night from two strangers in need of medical treatment—one of the men has a badly broken leg.  Unfortunately for Mudd, that night just happens to be April 14, 1965…and the man with the busted limb is John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald), who’s about to achieve his fifteen minutes of fame after popping a cap in President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.) in Ford’s Theater, not even allowing him the courtesy of seeing the end of the play.  The next day, as soldiers are engaged in a manhunt for Booth, two of them stop by Casa del Mudd…and discover the doc’s young daughter Martha (Joyce Kay) playing with the boot that Mudd had to cut off of JWB to attend to his leg.  Mudd is arrested for conspiracy in the assassination of Lincoln, and though convicted, escapes the execution sentence afforded the other conspirators—he is instead sentenced to life imprisonment at the East Coast “Devil’s Island”: Fort Jefferson, located in the Dry Tortugas Islands off the coast of the Florida Keys.

Fort Jeff is nicknamed “Shark Island” in the film’s title because the 75-foot wide, 35-foot deep moat surrounding the military prison is teeming with the critters—as described in a tutorial by one of the prison officials, a sadistic little piece of work known as Sergeant Rankin (John Carradine).  Meanwhile, Mudd’s wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart) and her father, Colonel Jeremiah Milford Dyer (Claude Gillingwater), learn from a judge (J.M. Kerrigan) that the doc’s conviction would never stand up in a civil court; if Peg and the Colonel can get Sam to Key West, a writ of habeas corpus could facilitate a new trial and win the medico his release.  So Peggy and Colonel Dyer wait by boat as Mudd and Buck (Ernest Whitman), a former slave working at the prison, attempt an escape.  Mudd manages to make it to the ship, but Rankin and his men quickly recapture the prisoner…killing Peggy’s pa in the process.

Redemption for Mudd arrives when he’s asked by the commandant (Harry Carey) to assume the duties of the prison doctor (O.P. Heggie), who succumbs to a bout of yellow fever courtesy of a colony of mosquitoes that have taken up residence at Fort Jefferson.  Mudd himself contracts the malady, but manages in his delirious state to command the fort’s gun crew to fire upon offshore boats carrying the medicine and doctors needed to cure the “Yellow Jack.”  For his actions in stamping out the prison’s epidemic, a recommendation of executive clemency is sent to the President on Mudd’s behalf, and the film ends with Mudd and Buck reunited with their respective families.

One of my favorite bits in The Prisoner of Shark Island: Our Ganger Matthew "Stymie" Beard plays one of Buck's (Ernest Whitman) dozen rugrats.

It’s true that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, and it’s true that Booth sought medical treatment from Dr. Samuel Mudd while the actor was on the run.  It’s even true that Mudd was tried before a military court and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Dry Tortugas after being found guilty of aiding and abetting Lincoln’s assassin, and that Mudd was eventually pardoned (though not exonerated) by President Andrew Johnson for his part in stemming the tide of the prison’s yellow fever epidemic.  Everything else in Shark Island…well, it would appear that director Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson started “printing the legend” with a roll of the opening credits (the notice that the film is “based on the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd” should have a “loosely” inserted in there somewhere).

For example, Mudd’s wife Peggy and her Colonel dad never concocted a plan to provide the boat that intercepts Mudd once he breaks out of the prison (Mudd did make an escape attempt a couple of months after being sentenced to “Shark Island” by hiding aboard a visiting ship, but was quickly discovered before he got away).  Mudd’s father-in-law was already dead at the time of the film’s events, and his wife was named Sarah Frances, not Peggy.  Three of Mudd’s children disappear from the movie’s narrative (he had four at the time of his trial) and none of his actual offspring looked like the Cute Moppet from Central Casting in this flick.  Furthermore, Mudd was not thrown into an underground pit after being recaptured…and certainly not with his loyal retainer Buck, because none of his slaves were there at the prison to help him to escape.  And on and on and on.

Ford and Johnson argue the case for Mudd’s innocence by having the doctor challenge his accusers: “Does an assassin confide his plans to anyone?  Was I, a physician, in the plot because it was part of John Wilkes Booth’s plan to break his leg and need me?  Does a man, whose first devotion is no longer to a lost cause or to any flag that flies but to his wife and child, risk any act that could cause only misery and heartbreak on their innocent lives?”  Historians have been debating for decades as to whether or not there really was a conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination, and a strong argument could be made that following the event, enough hysteria was whipped up to ensnare Mudd in its web—a simple case of a man being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But like any good defense attorney, Ford and Johnson omit from the narrative that the assassination was originally planned as a kidnapping (which suggests he could have participated in the plot)…and that Mudd and Booth were more than just casual acquaintances (the two men had a meet-and-greet during Booth’s visit to Bryantown, MD in the latter part of 1864, with the actor becoming the doc’s overnight houseguest on at least one occasion).  Mudd’s failure to report this friendship cast a storm cloud of doubt over his innocence at the time.

I guess the reason why most of these fellows are in uniform is that their kangaroo suits didn't come back from the cleaners.

Knowledge of these events, however, shouldn’t detract from the viewing enjoyment of The Prisoner of Shark Island; the biopic is made quite interesting as a result of Ford’s skillful filmmaking, featuring common Fordian themes of community (the movie commences with a parade that ends outside the White House, where Lincoln makes a few remarks) and one-man-can-make-a-difference sacrifice.  What makes Shark Island so interesting to me is that Mudd’s devotion to the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”) is responsible for both his downfall (helping the fugitive Booth) and vindication (eliminating the prison’s yellow fever epidemic).  The acting is also first-rate; Oscar winner Warner Baxter has one of his truly outstanding roles as the anguished Mudd—I kind of chuckled, knowing that the thespian would return to the medical profession in the 1940s as the star of the Crime Doctor franchise.  Gloria Stuart takes what is unquestionably an underwritten part and transforms it into something luminous; her Peggy Mudd never wavers in both her devotion to her husband and belief in his innocence, and her scenes with kiddie actress Kay are positively enchanting (particularly when she struggles to explain the death of the child’s grandfather).

There are also a lot of familiar faces from the Ford stock company (brother Frances plays one of the prison guards, once again demonstrating there’s no place like Hollywood for nepotism), most notably TDOY fave John Carradine—who gives one of his most memorable performances as the heartless Rankin.  The smoke rings constantly blown by the sergeant suggest a Satanic essence to the man, and Carradine isn’t afraid to pull out the stops with that maniacally wicked gleam in his eye.   Rankin eventually falls prey to the yellow fever, and must depend on his nemesis to save his life…and fittingly receives salvation for insisting that he be the first to sign the doctor’s clemency recommendation while he shakes Mudd’s hand in sincere gratitude after doing so.  Harry Carey, an actor who worked with John Ford in scads of westerns during the Silent Era, had gone the character route at this time in his career and performs most admirably as the tough but fair prison commandant.

I won’t lie—I do find a few elements of The Prisoner of Shark Island disturbing: it’s one of several films in the Ford mythology (Judge Priest, The Sun Shines Bright) that presents the post-antebellum South as an idyllic paradise oblivious to Jim Crow and those devoted to the Confederate cause are venerated even if they did lose the freaking war in the first place (Gillingwater’s Colonel Dyer prattles on about “the woah of Nawthun Aggreshun” being about states’ rights, which caused my eyeballs to do a triple lutz).  The depiction of both black soldiers and slaves is troubling, presented in that casual racism so prevalent in cinema at that time; I’m surprised Ford didn’t ask Stepin Fetchit to play the role essayed by Ernie Whitman, to be honest.  But despite all this and the discordant note sounded in the film’s “comic” ending, Shark Island is a most intriguing entry on the movie resume of John Ford, who famously introduced himself by intoning “I make Westerns.”  Fans of the director know this simply wasn’t so, and if you’re up to the challenge of watching one of Ford’s most underrated works without nitpicking like a historical scholar (guilty as charged), I recommend it highly.

5 comments:

Dan Day Jr. said...

Excellent post.

Irish Jayhawk said...

Can't believe I've never seen this film. Now you've got me intrigued-thanks for the great write-up, Ivan!

Caftan Woman said...

Warner Baxter truly gives a great performance. The sort that makes me want to clap him on the back and buy him a drink for a job well done.

You're not the sort who would give a nit-picky history lesson while watching the movie, are you? My husband is that sort. One of these days I'll bop him on the head with a rolling pin. No jury would convict.

Silver Screenings said...

Ack! I'm another one who hasn't seen this film and it sounds terrific!

As for historical accuracies, I never blame a writer or filmmaker for refusing to let facts get in the way of a good story. ;)

Great post! Thanks for the introduction to this movie.

Stacia said...

Mudd’s father-in-law was already dead at the time of the film’s events,

But but but a woman couldn't have done those things herself! She needs a resurrected mancorpse to help her out, just as God and John Ford intended.

Another fantastic write-up! Not only have I never seen this, I swear I thought this was some B-movie horror flick. No idea it was a John Ford film until the 'thon! Yes, that's right, I'm a professional.