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.
Warner Baxter ... Dr. Samuel Mudd
Gloria Stuart ... Mrs. Peggy Mudd
Claude Gillingwater ... Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer
Arthur Byron ... Mr. Erickson
O.P. Heggie ... Dr. MacIntyre
Harry Carey ... Commandant of Fort Jefferson
Francis Ford ... Cpl. O'Toole
John McGuire ... Lt. Lovett
Francis McDonald ... John Wilkes Booth
Douglas Wood ... Gen. Ewing
John Carradine ... Sgt. Rankin
Joyce Kay ... Martha Mudd
Director: John Ford
Runtime: 96 mins
Codecs: XVid / AC3
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.
This film, coming out at a time when the nation as a whole and Hollywood in particular tended to be sympathetic toward the South, presents a one-sided account of the events surrounding the Lincoln assassination of 1865. This was due to some extend by the visual impressions created by D. W. Griffith of Kentucky, especially his seminal "The Birth of a Nation" which made heroes out of the clandestine hate organization, the KKK. From a political standpoint, the South had become important as a result of many powerful congressmen and senators being from that region which by now had become the stronghold of the Democratic Party, "The Solid South." Pecuniary matters are usually the deciding factor for Hollywood, and there existed a large ticket-buying public in that part of our nation. The Civil War became The War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression. The volatile issue of slavery was replaced with the states rights rationalization, forgetting that South Carolina and the other ten Confederate slave states withdrew from the Union so their right to own chattel would not be bothered. The right to own slaves became one of the main planks in the Confederate Constitution.
"The Prisoner of Shark Island" presents the Southern view of history. It also conveniently omits the incriminating evidence against Dr. Mudd, that he knew Booth well. In fact, he was the one who had introduced Booth to a leading conspirator, John Surratt. After setting Booth's leg, Booth did not leave the Mudd house but stayed the night and was ably assisted by Dr. Mudd. Evidence indicates that Mudd knew much more than he ever admitted about Booth and the assassination conspiracy. The murder of Lincoln occurred in the federal district of Washington, D.C., not in a state, hence the reason for the military tribunal. Needless to say, the conduct of the trial would have been much different had it been a civilian rather than a military one. The fact that the one who pulled the trigger, Booth, was killed before coming to trial also muddied the water.
The part of "The Prisoner of Shark Island" that sticks with history best is Dr. Mudd's heroic efforts to combat disease at the prison. This justifiably led to his pardon by President Andrew Johnson.
The acting, direction, and cinematography are first rate. Written by a Southerner, Nunnally Johnson, the historical facts are a bit skewed but otherwise the script is a good one. If the viewer keeps an open mind, this is a very entertaining picture.
In general, Hollywood bio-pics of the 1930s bore me. So many of them stray so far from the real story or attempt to canonize the subjects that they just seem too fake and sickly to watch. This movie is a good exception to this rule of thumb. I was pleasantly surprised that the movie was NOT all treacle and it was easy to find myself engaged in the plot. Plus, the subject matter of the movie is an enigmatic person in that NO ONE alive knows for sure what, if any, role he had in Licoln's death. It really got me thinking and as a result I did some research--and ultimately learned that this debate will probably never be decided! But, based on excellent writing and acting, I strongly recommend it. Plus, as a history teacher, I am happy that, in general, the facts seem to be presented well. THAT'S a rarity for any biographical movie!