Friday, June 22, 2012

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

20th Century-Fox
Director: John Ford
Starring: Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart

John Ford’s production of The Prisoner of Shark Island takes his filmmaking to a new place, as this feature loosely based on a wrongfully accused, little known historical figure in American history. Despite the fictionalized telling of the real life man, Dr. Samuel Mudd, with the film taking strong liberties with the tale of a man convicted and later pardoned for his connection to one of the nation’s most well known crimes, Ford creates an entertaining film about a name and his strong will to just get back to normal despite conviction with no wrongful doing. Starring the ever busy leading man Warner Baxter, we are transported to the time just proceeding the end of the Civil War when reconstruction was just beginning and tempers still ran high between the North and the South.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a drama fictionalizing the story of Samuel Mudd, a physician convicted for associating and aiding John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and Mudd’s eventual pardon for the crime. Warner Baxter stars as kind hearted Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, who on one fateful night treats the wounded leg of stranger, who happens to be John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald) on the run directly proceeding the assassination of the President at Ford’s Theater that evening. Due to unfortunate circumstances and the swift actions of the court in the wake of events, Mudd is sentenced to life in prison for aiding in the conspiracy through association to Booth. Sentenced to live out his days on an island off the Florida keys Mudd finds hostility from many for his crimes, but eventually is needed as he aides in suppressing an outbreak of yellow fever on the island. For his brave deeds and strength under the near calamity that could have killed all men on the island, Mudd is pardoned, finally washed clean of his wrongful accusations.

Despite gregarious historical inaccuracies of the real life events to that depicted for entertainment purposes on screen, the film is rather enjoyable as a lone story, leaving you wanting to read more about the historical events that did surround the real-life man. Unfortunately history says uglier truths concerning the man that is Dr. Samuel Mudd. Truth is Mudd was in fact was pardoned by President Johnson for Mudd’s actions in fighting off yellow fever despite his ties to Booth, which in reality were much closer that a visitor in the night. Other than the assassination, the aiding of Booth, the conviction, and the eventual pardon, all the other event of the film are exaggerated, fictionalized tales to make his story more entertaining for audiences in the movie theaters. In real life Mudd was known to associate with Booth and could very well have been in on the assassination attempt, planning to help the assailant with his get-away plan. But we can all put that aside as John Ford leads down a story of action, bravery, and adventure, as in this case a man is wrongfully accused after he helps a stranger treat his wound.

John Ford, known for his more visually stunning works, opens the film right away with strong images as the North had just won the war and march back into town to huge crowds and massive bon fires. His use of bold imagery and selective, dramatic camera angles makes for a film that grabs ahold of you, even though this is not as expansive as the larger features he would be known for, such as The Lost Patrol, or his many westerns. His cinematography adds a greater sense of drama, even when the scene is not necessarily dramatic, such as a humble speech by Abraham Lincoln. That is the magic of John Ford.

One of the busiest men in Hollywood, Warner Baxter, would star as brave Dr. Mudd. Baxter, a former winner of the Academy Award for best acting, gives perhaps one of his finest performances as the wrongfully accused physician sentenced to die in prison. This was just one of six features Baxter would appear in during the year 1936, making him one of the highest paid actors in the business due in large part to his large quantities of work.

Baxter may carry everything that there is in the feature with his character, but surrounding him would be the support of his wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart). Stuart’s fictionalized version of Mudd’s wife (who in real life was not even named Peggy, but Sarah), provides the emotional wreaking of innocence, giving perspective to what happens to Mudd on the outside of prison. Her performance is good considering the role being weak, and Stuart always seemed to be working around the business’s top talent, though herself not really breaking out as a major star.

As always when looking into films about that time in American history we look at how the picture looks at race issues as presented to the audience. Mudd is portrayed as kind to his slaves, creating sympathy from the slaves towards their master. One even goes so far as to travel down to Florida (though the deep South?) to infiltrate the prison and help Mudd breakout. Even after the war he returns to a home which still hold slaves that live with him. The slaves even fight Union soldiers off the property. It is a crazy thought that these people would think so kindly towards their master, as to shun their own freedom to stay, but that is what the film has. In all, yes it is inaccurate, and very much so, but it is meant in a way to make Mudd that much more of a likeable person, because we stick around him for the 100 minutes of the film’s duration, and we cannot do that with someone we do not like.

It is an interesting piece of American history that most people are not aware of, as most of the history falls on Booth’s name when you think of Lincoln’s assassination. Though historical accounts do point to Mudd being part of the conspiracy, here in Ford’s film we are served tale of unjust politics. If there is any moral to the film it is the unjust will be proven wrong and the good will be rewarded, eventually. The picture paints the North in a bit of a negative light with the treatment of the political situation and not giving a man his chance at defense. In the end that is what the film really attempts to do other than  entertain, plainly calling Mudd a hero, despite what people thought of him then and even now. That is the power of the motion picture over people.

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