A few short hours after President Lincoln has been assassinated, Dr. Samuel Mudd gives medical treatment to a wounded man who shows up at his door. Mudd has no idea that the president is dead and that he is treating his murderer, John Wilkes Booth. But that doesn't save him when the army posse searching for Booth finds evidence that Booth has been to the doctor's house. Dr. Mudd is arrested for complicity and sentenced to life imprisonment, to be served in the infamous pestilence-ridden Dry Tortugas. Written by
Booth stops and asks for the nearest doctor, and the bystander suggests Dr. Mudd, and gives Booth directions to the Doctor's house. In reality, Booth knew Dr. Mudd quite well, and knew just where to go for medical aid the night of the assassination (he had even stayed at Dr. Mudd's once, and so had no need to ask for directions). Also, in the film, Booth and Herold stay only a few minutes in Dr. Mudd's house, and then leave. In reality, Booth and Herold stayed the night at Dr. Mudd's, and were even served breakfast the following morning. See more »
This moving story does have some actuality. One of the interesting details is some legal argument about the place of residence of doctor Mudd. The lawyers argue that if he could be transported from Shark Island, the prison on Dry Tortugas, to a place where normal US legislation is applied, then a writ of habeas corpus could be served and he would go free. Therefore Mudd's supporters launch a failed rescue attempt to that effect. On Dry Tortugas, an island off the Floridy Keys, the prisoner has no chance to appeal for territorial reasons. In my understanding (I am no lawyer, however) this pretty much reflects the Guantanamo situation of today and one just hopes that no doctor Mudds are holed up there and that all open legal questions in that context can be resolved satisfactorily.
I am always amazed how outspoken movies of the great Hollywood Studios could be on political issues or social or legal injustice. This movie is an important product of this tradition. The Prisoner of Shark Island is almost an Anti Yankee-movie. The soldiers are uncouth and brutal, the carpet baggers sleazy double talkers. The authorities panic after President Lincoln's assassination. Somebody, anybody has to hang for the crime. And fast. One of the memorable moments of the movie has one of the military judges in charge say something like we owe it to the people", clearly meaning the enraged mob in the square below. Thinking of who else claimed to fulfill the wishes of the people" around 1936 this could also be an appeal to legal authorities to serve the written law and not give in to those who shout the loudest.
Director John Ford certainly knew how to stir up emotions, some of the pathos might be regarded as slightly overwrought by contemporary viewers. However, The Prisoner of Shark Island certainly is one of the most beautiful and memorable movies of his.
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