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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
The Prisoner of Shark Island is directed by John Ford and written by Nunnally Johnson. It stars Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey, John Carradine, Ernest Whitman, Francis McDonald, Joyce Kay, Claude Gillingwater and Frank McGlynn. Music is by R.H. Bassett and Hugo Friedhofer and cinematography by Bert Glennon.
After setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth (McDonald), Dr. Samuel A. Mudd (Baxter) is tried as a co-conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (McGlynn). Sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, Mudd desperately tries to stay sane and fight a vicious regime in the hope of one day proving the unjust nature of his sentence.
A personal favourite of Ford's, it's not hard to see why given that The Prisoner of Shark Island is supreme film making. Based on the true story of Samuel Mudd, there is perhaps unsurprisingly some little fudging of the facts, but this in no way detracts from the truthful basis of this incredible human interest story. Time is afforded to the joy at the end of the Civil War, Lincoln's weariness (McGlynn classy as usual), the assassination on that desperate day April 14th 1865, Mudd's family life and moral fibre and then the night he abided by his Hippocratic Oath and administered medical aid to the man who had just murdered the president. These are all delicately handled scenes by Ford, who aided by Johnson's screenplay manages to hit home to us the fragile nature of the Mudd incident that is harnessed by a country grieving with anger.
Once the trial arrives, the film shifts to another level, the delicacy of Ford's framing of characters and Johnson's rich dialogue passages are replaced by striking imagery and an impassioned performance by the wonderful Baxter. The hooded prisoners on trial for their lives and the wooden gallows outside the court chill the blood, then Baxter delivers his heart tugging three pronged defence monologue that is as good a piece of acting as was given in the 30s. Sentenced passed, execution off camera strikes a chord and then Mudd sits alone and forlorn in a darkened cell, filtered light shards imprison Mudd and let us know that Glennon has arrived to takes us up yet another notch.
What then unfolds is a superb depiction of the horrors of prison life, Fort Jefferson is a dank and desperate place, a place of misery for the prisoners, especially for Mudd, who has the patriotic but sadistic Sergeant Rankin (Carradine brilliant) after his blood. Ford is alive to the benefits of Carradine's nasty performance, so has him lighted as malevolent and angled like a horror movie protagonist. Some of the shots during the prison sequences are clinical on impact value, such as Mudd on his cell window sill or one capture as he stares down through a floor grate, shadows and light showing Glennon at his best and giving us a shot fit to grace the best film noirs of the 40s.
The rest is history as written, the desperation of an escape attempt, the yellow fever outbreak and his eventual pardon by President Andrew Johnson (this would be 1869 in reality). Nicely packaged by Ford who closes the picture down by having Mudd and Buck (Whitman an impressive presence throughout the picture), his one time black slave and loyal friend, return home to their families, harmony restored after such hardships. There is inevitably some annoyance by critics and film fans alike that the black characters are racial stereotypes, but this is a 1936 film depicting a story unfolding in 1865/67, Ford and Johnson's work here is representative of its times. And in no way, to my film loving mind, hurts this picture in any way.
Classic cinema in its purest form from the writing table to finished product, it's highly recommended viewing. 9.5/10
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