Prisoner of Shark Island, The (1936)

“In the sight of the holy God I worship, I am innocent!”

Synopsis:
Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter) is wrongly convicted of conspiracy in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln, and sentenced to life in prison.

Genres:

Review:
John Ford’s paean to infamous Civil War-era doctor Samuel Mudd was purportedly one of his personal favorites, and holds up reasonably well today. Although reviewers at the time praised the film for its historical veracity, however, recent research shows that Ford conveniently tweaked the truth to serve his own purposes: in the film, Mudd professes to only having seen John Wilkes Boothe performing on stage; in reality, the two met several times and were definitely at least acquaintances. Also frustrating is Ford’s treatment of African Americans, who — perhaps inevitably for the time — are shown as both servile and weak. Despite these flaws, however, The Prisoner of Shark Island remains an atmospheric, engrossing historical drama with a powerful message about our tendency to look for scapegoats when emotions run high.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Warner Baxter as Dr. Mudd
    Baxter
  • John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard hell-bent on making Mudd’s life miserable
    Carradine
  • Gloria Stuart as Baxter’s long-suffering wife
    Stuart
  • Atmospheric b&w cinematography
    Cinematography

Must See?
No, though it’s certainly a must for John Ford fans.

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One Response to “Prisoner of Shark Island, The (1936)”

  1. Not a must, though a solid film; a tale well told by director Ford.

    It’s hard to think of this as an ‘early’ Ford film when the reality is that his first was released in 1917 (!). But in terms of his overall career – and the number of films of his that became widely known later on – this is an early effort. In some ways, I prefer Ford’s films from the ’30s and ’40s because Ford seems more of a shadow in them – you know a craftsman is there serving the film, but there is less of what became the signature Ford stamp. (It’s possible that my favorite Ford film is ‘How Green Was My Valley’, from 1941.)

    [Side note: Some years back, TCM showed restored – I think – versions of some very early Ford films. Odd that they’ve kind of disappeared again and are not on DVD.]

    Until reading the assessment, I didn’t know about some of the truth behind this story. Ah, truth!…and what film most often does to it – it’s a wonder we believe ANYthing in movies when it comes to ‘true stories’. But I generally agree with the ‘agenda’ of the film, and it is remarkably photographed (esp. good use of lighting). The cast is effective, with Baxter a stand-out.

    Re: the African Americans…perhaps the same could be said of so many vintage American films. (The point is made with “perhaps inevitably for the time”.) Still, the screenplay does allow for something of a broader view – and the film does end, interestingly, with Buck and his family.

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