click to buy “The Prisoner of Shark Island” at Amazon.co.ukAt this hour the melancholy intelligence of the assassination of Mr. Lincoln, President of the U.S., at Fords Theater was brought to this office.

– District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department Blotter, 14 April 1865 (1)

After shooting Abraham Lincoln, assassin John Wilkes Booth leapt from the President’s box and onto the stage, breaking his leg. Helped by waiting accomplices, he vanished into the night. Some hours later, at 4 a.m. the next morning, he turned up at the plantation home of Dr. Samuel Mudd in Maryland. Mudd set the broken leg and Booth left. Twelve days later, Booth was killed when he resisted Union soldiers trying to arrest him.

Dr. Samuel Mudd was arrested several days later, charged with being part of a conspiracy to kill the President. Less than a month after the assassination, the trial of eight alleged conspirators started before a nine-member military commission. All were found guilty and four were executed, including Mary Surratt, the first woman to be hanged in the USA. Mudd was spared execution and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was sent to Fort Jefferson, a military prison on the Dry Tortugas in Florida.

Two years after his arrival at this prison, often compared to Devil’s Island, Mudd took over the responsibilities of the prison doctor, when the doctor died during an outbreak of yellow fever. A further two years later, Mudd was pardoned by Andrew Johnson, ostensibly as a reward for his work during the yellow-fever outbreak. He was able to return home to his family.

Seventy years later, in 1936, Daryl F. Zanuck initiated a film of these events, with Nunnally Johnson as the scriptwriter. Warner Baxter played Mudd and John Ford was the director, although neither star nor director was originally attached to the project. Henry King had been Zanuck’s first choice as director. And now, a further seventy years later, that movie, The Prisoner of Shark Island, has been released on DVD by Masters of Cinema.

At a time when there is debate over the role of history in our culture, those two seventy-year gaps between the event and the film, and our viewing of it become interesting markers.

The hands of Zanuck and Johnson are certainly evident in the film. As a producer, Zanuck frequently favoured simple but strong plotlines over character development – look at his cut of a later John Ford film, My Darling Clementine (1946). Nunnally Johnson was a Southerner, born in Georgia in 1897. To him, the fate of Samuel Mudd was an example of the vindictiveness of the North and a victim of the social hysteria of the time. A clear transgression of justice, Mudd was a man much wronged.

A quarter of a century before The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John, Ford, 1962), this becomes a case of printing the legend. Particularly for Johnson, this was a story that could encapsulate the sufferings inflicted on the South.

Historically, Mudd’s innocence is certainly challenged by some historians. According to The Prisoner of Shark Island, Mudd and Booth never met until, by accident, Booth called on the doctor to help splint his broken leg. That this was not so came out in the military trial. The two had certainly met a year earlier and the meeting has been speculatively linked to discussions of a scheme to kidnap President Lincoln. Another meeting had taken place on Mudd’s plantation.

As well, Mudd’s dislike of Lincoln came out at his trial. One witness was:

Mary Sims. (colored)
For the Prosecution. – May 25 [1865]

I know that prisoner yonder [Dr. Samuel Mudd]. I was his slave, and lived with him four years. I left him about a month before this Christmas gone. I heard him talk about President Lincoln. He said that he stole in there at night, dressed in woman’s clothes; that he lay in watch for him and if he had come in right they would have killed him. He said nothing about shooting him; he would have killed him, he said, if he had come in right, but he could not; he was dressed in woman’s clothes. (2)

The Mudd of Shark Island is an innocent, loving husband and father who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it’s only because his daughter was playing with her doll, using the boot cut from Wilkes Booth’s foot as a doll’s pram, that the Union soldiers even think to connect Mudd with the assassin. Booth’s boot was certainly used as evidence in the trial, though whether it was found this way is speculation – or dramatic imagination. In the film, Mudd has only one daughter, whereas in reality he had eight children, four already born at the time of these events. Zanuck is reputed to have determined the age of the girl, based on ideas of at what age can you have a child actor perform convincingly and with emotional impact on the film audience.

One dramatic problem with the film is that Mudd is not a particularly interesting character. There is no dramatic arc in his character. He is good and upright at the start, and he is good and upright at the end. He never seems challenged by the consequences of adhering to his principles, even when threatened with execution or mistreatment in the prison. Warner Baxter does not bring much shade to the character. It is a stolid, dull performance.

Ford appears to have more interest in some of the minor characters, in particular that of the prison guard, Rankin. This was the first time that Ford used John Carradine and he gives him several dramatic close-ups, taking advantage of how that long face can be lit to embody leering nastiness and sadistic evil. Rankin embodies vengeful outrage at the death of his beloved President and, if the courts couldn’t execute Mudd, then why shouldn’t he?

But then there is the outbreak of yellow fever in the prison. And noble Mudd, more sinned against than sinning, selflessly puts his own life at risk to care for the sick – whether prisoner, soldier or guard. One of these is, of course, Rankin, who recognises in the action the true humanity of Mudd. And when a petition is proposed in support of Mudd, it is Rankin, his erstwhile nemesis, who asks to be the first person to sign.

It is easy to mock this dramatic device, but the important thing is that it works. Ford has been quoted as saying that, if you have a sentimental scene, play it for all it’s worth; don’t try for understatement or irony. In fact, the moment has the impact of a similar scene in The Searchers (1956) when Ethan (John Wayne) lifts the rescued Debbie (Natalie Wood) onto his horse, with the words, “Let’s go home.” In one moment, in one incident, a character reveals the extent of the personal and emotional journey he has completed. This dramatic arc in Rankin’s character is more interesting than anything in the character of Mudd.

Ford’s ability to encapsulate a range of ideas and emotions is also recognisable in the film’s prologue. President Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr) himself responds to the crowds celebrating the end of the Civil War. He refrains from rubbing salt into wounds, instead saying that now he can again ask his musicians to play for him a tune – “I declare it contraband of war and our lawful prize” – “Dixie”. This is the iconic, magnanimous Lincoln, the legend. Again, the strength of the cinematic conception overpowers the waxworks-like, stiff impersonation of McGlynn as Lincoln.

Interesting and problematic is Ford’s treatment of the African-American characters – not that Ford would have recognised that circumlocution. From a post-Civil Rights perspective, Ford’s portrayal of such characters in many of his films is both affectionate and patronising, no more so than in the roles played by Stepin Fetchit in films such as Steamboat Round the Bend (John Ford, 1935) made immediately before The Prisoner of Shark Island.

‘Buck’ Milford (Ernest Whitman) is a warm character. A former slave on Mudd’s plantation (though his status as slave, or Mudd’s as a slave-owner, is certainly not emphasised), Buck joins the army and has himself transferred to Fort Jefferson so he can be near his former master. He helps Mudd in an escape attempt, for which he gets thrown into the same cell as Mudd. But he also helps Mudd during the yellow-fever outbreak and is rewarded by being released with him.

Very much reflecting contemporary attitudes, there are moments when we are asked to smile at the simplicity of these child-like people, such as the way that Buck has assumed the grandiloquent name Buckingham Montmorency Milford to enlist in the army. We are also asked to smile at his (and other Blacks’?) propensity to breed; it’s Buck’s twelfth child’s birth that Mudd is at when the film begins.

Black soldiers in the prison are also represented as childlike, bug-eyed with ignorant terror and unable to help, for example, when the prison doctor asks for assistance after he collapses with fever. There is also a loaded scene with an opportunistic White encouraging Blacks to register for votes. This scene echoes with the racism of similar episodes from a generation earlier in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915).

But Buck is represented with dignity. Ernest Whitman is an imposing presence as an actor and, although he may be made to shuffle a bit, Buck is more effective in attempts to help Mudd escape than Mudd himself. And, interestingly, John Ford gives Buck the final shot of the film: we leave the film anticipating Buck’s joy at being restored to his family, after having seen his loyalty in helping his former master return to his family.

Ford’s cinematic mastery is shown in the central episode of the trial and sentencing of Mudd. Although this is basically a transitional and structural scene to let us learn Mudd’s sentence, Ford plays it for all its worth, effectively having us see it through the point of view of Mudd’s wife, Peggy (Gloria Stuart). She can’t find out immediately what her husband’s fate is to be, and we share her anxiety and dread. Perhaps it is a bit mawkish when Mudd tells his daughter to look after Mummy. (Ford’s use of music can be unimaginative and a little too manipulative, as here.)

Ford then takes us with Peggy into the courtyard where a crowd has gathered to watch the executions. A soldier tells Peggy, “You’ve got the best place in the yard, lady. Over yonder’s where they’re coming out.” Of course, we cringe in horror with her! The suspense builds as the condemned are brought out one by one, delaying and delaying the moment when Peggy realises that Mudd is not going to be hanged. The actual hangings are shown obliquely, in a montage of images, drum sticks beating a tattoo, soldiers in lines, faces in the crowd wincing, men covering their eyes with their hats, the prop under the trap doors being knocked out.

Then, “I guess the show’s over.” Ford cuts from the courtyard to inside the holding cells, where two scruffy guards have been following what has been happening. “What about him?” asks one of the guards, pointing to Mudd. “Life imprisonment. On Dry Tortuga”, the other guard tells him. Economically, Ford has ended the scene, and given us the information we need. Instead of a standard fade, Ford artfully (and unrealistically, but dramatically) alters the lighting to end the scene. The front lighting is faded, leaving Mudd silhouetted against the bars of his cell, a small figure in the centre of a black space, the only light failing to give him a face or any features, and emphasising the bars holding him isolated from the world outside.

This expressionistic approach to the cinematography is an important element in the impact of the prison scenes. (Cinematographer Bert Glennon is surely a cameraman whose career is worthy of more attention. He photographed many important classic films, including The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928) and The Scarlet Empress (Josef von Sternberg, 1934), as well as other major John Ford films.) Although obviously filmed in a studio, this is no more of a problem than it is in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). The comparison is appropriate, for Murnau’s work is regularly cited as having influenced Ford’s own approach in this period. When Mudd arrives at Dry Tortuga with other prisoners, after an establishing shot of a prison occupying all of an island, we see lines of shuffling, chained convicts. Mudd is picked out and identified by the Commandant of Fort Jefferson (Harry Carey). In one of the offices, the first confrontation with Rankin sets up this conflict before the prisoners are sent to their cells. Carradine’s sneering performance certainly dominates this episode.

And as the prisoners are formally brought in, the clanging of doors, and high-angle, high-contrast and deep lighting emphasise the sense of incarceration as the closing doors reverberate, and the camera focuses on a roughly carved motto, “Leave hope behind who enters here.”

* * *

Seventy years on from the film’s release, much of the film still comes across as almost frighteningly relevant. This is not only because the final legal matters from the case concluded as recently as February 2003. In December 1997, Dr. Richard Mudd, Samuel Mudd’s grandson, filed suit in the U.S. District Court to, among several other issues, obtain a Declaratory Judgment that Mudd was wrongfully convicted. In 2003, these moves were closed with the Supreme Court’s decision not to “hear the appeal of the 138-year-old conviction of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd for complicity in the assassination of President Lincoln because the lawyer for the Mudd family missed the deadline for filing the case.” (3) Grandson Richard had died the year before in May 2002.

The initial starting cause of the whole drama is a Presidential assassination. Wilkes Booth was killed before any trial – as was Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassin of President Kennedy, in 1963. In both cases, the national focus shifted to theories of conspiracy.

Issues of expediency over justice are also frighteningly contemporary. As he convenes the military tribunal in the film, the Secretary instructs them, “The object of this tribunal is not to determine the guilt or innocence of a handful of rebels but to save this country from further bloodshed.” Is this also the rational behind the Bush administration’s response to the events of 11 September? Is it their rationale (rationalisation) for Guantanamo Bay? It is a tribute to Ford’s direction that these thoughts can still arise from his film. It may have been conceived as a dramatic Hollywood drama, it may have taken only four months from its original conception to release, it may have some dramatic and acting weaknesses, but it is still alive and relevant.

The visual qualities of the film are well supported in the recent DVD release of The Prisoner of Shark Island from The Masters of Cinema (#22, Region 2.) The excellent transfer allows the cinematography to be seen at its best. Many of the dramatic qualities (and problems) are addressed in a helpful commentary by Scott Eyman, and many of the racially problematic aspects of the film are raised in a short video discussion by David Ehrenstein. Additional printed material includes an essay by Lindsay Anderson, one of the first critics to respond enthusiastically to Ford’s canon as serious work.

The booklet indicates that facsimiles of the original continuity and dialogue script (130 pages), and the musical cue sheet (4 pages) can be found in pdf format, but I was unable to locate them.

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Endnotes

  1. http://www.dcd.uscourts.gov/save-html/97-2946.html.
  2. http://www.surratt.org/documents/Bplact09.pdf. Transcripts of Testimony Concerning Samuel A. Mudd from the Military Tribunal can be found at this site.
  3. http://www.surratt.org/mudd/muddchron.html.

About The Author

Peter Hourigan has spent many years going to the movies, being involved with film society and film festival bodies, as well as teaching movies with secondary students. He also leads adult discussion groups with Centre for Adult Education (Melbourne).