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
Having jumped from THE TALL TARGET to PRINCE OF PLAYERS, you can now turn to this excellent film by John Ford. It's star Warner Baxter has had a very unfair posthumous reputation. He was the second actor to win the Academy Award for best actor for the role of the Cisco Kid in IN OLD ARIZONA (1928), and was overused in Hollywood for the next seven years. As a result, most of his movies were duds. This, and the fact that his Oscar was partly based on a fake-Mexican accent, downgraded a fine acting reputation. It should be remembered that he was the first actor (before Alan Ladd and Robert Redford) to portray Jay Gatsby on the screen. His credits include his tragic, war-weary French army officer in THE ROAD TO GLORY, Alan Breck Stewart in KIDNAPPED, and Dr. Mudd in this film. But most people recall him as Julian Marsh, the struggling, ill producer in FORTY-SECOND STREET, who tells Ruby Keeler, "YOU HAVE TO COME BACK A STAR!"
Historically Mudd's innocence is still up in the air - he had met Booth the previous fall and winter when Booth was going through southern Maryland, studying possible escape routes. But Mudd was a doctor, and (whether or not he knew Booth that April 1865 night)was bound by the Hippocratic Oath to treat him for his broken leg. It really was the image of a southern (and pro-Confederate) doctor treating the leg of the man who shot Lincoln that annoyed Northerners. It is that which convicted Mudd, unfair as it really is.
While Ford's direction, and the performances of Baxter and the cast hold the film well together, Ford does get the atmosphere of hate that permeated the trial of the Conspirators - look at the sequence of witnesses Arthur Byron produces against Mudd at the trial, and how Byron instructs the army officers (who are under him and Secretary of War Stanton) to ignore Baxter's sensible outburst ("Would John Wilkes Booth have intentionally broken his leg to see me?!"). John Carridine's performance is fine, but what is not mentioned is that his sadism against Mudd is based on his fanatical devotion to Abraham Lincoln. There is great subtlety there. Also, after Mudd beats the Yellow Fever epidemic, Carridine is the first soldier to sign a petition for Mudd's release.
It is not a great film, but it is a fine one for all that. Now, if only a modern John Ford can do the definitive movie about that other tragedy of the conspiracy trial: the judicial murder of Mary Surratt.
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