Criterion Prediction #73: The Prisoner of Shark Island, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Prisoner of Shark Island
Director: John Ford
Cast: Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Claude Gillingwater, Harry Carey, Arthur Byron, O.P. Heggie, John Carradine
Synopsis: Country doctor Samuel Mudd becomes a suspect in the conspiracy of the Lincoln assassination after mending the fractured leg of John Wilkes Booth, not knowing that his patient is a fugitive for shooting the president. However, a bereaved nation provokes an eager justice system sentencing Mudd to a lifelong prison term at the Dry Tortugas, an unforgiving penal colony not welcoming to an alleged conspirator.
Critique: The Prisoner of Shark Island is a fascinating and occasionally brilliant John Ford film that suffers from one major flaw – its portrayal of black people. Getting to the point, the most damaging marks against the movie are the stereotypical “yes’m boss man!” type dialogue from its black actors, but if you can move past its regressive trappings, the taut realization by Ford is rewarding.
While he has immense talent in realizing American history in his cinema, Ford is also emblematic of our nation’s “selective” archiving acumen by subscribing to the “print the legend” school of thought; a sentiment practically spelled out at the end of Fort Apache.
In the Fordian tradition, he realizes Samuel Mudd as a charitable victim of circumstance who finds redemption by portraying him as a the victim of a brutal penal system, and eventually a heroic example of humanitarianism when his medical knowledge is put to work, saving the penal colony from a deadly yellow fever outbreak. In fact, Mudd was a something of a southern loyalist with alleged ties to John Wilkes Booth prior to the assassination, but where’s the fun in that?
Leading the cast as Dr. Mudd is Warner Baxter, a commanding physical performer, but it’s John Carradine who steals the show in one of the first of many collaboration with Ford in his stock company as the sneering Sgt. Rankin.
Ford’s legacy is immediately referential in looking at any of his work and this earlier Zanuck period is a fascinating contrast to his more lyrical films that followed. The punchy stigma from his previous success with The Informer seems to have carried over as The Prisoner from Shark Island retains a gritty atmosphere; not something immediately associated with the Fordian ethos. However, this becomes a pliable quality considering the dramatic urgency of the material. Darkness is on the exterior of The Prisoner of Shark Island (as well as The Informer and, later, The Grapes of Wrath) whereas it would later be more internalized transformation, one example being the iconic Ethan Edwards character from The Searchers.
Here, Ford’s penchant for folksy sensibilities are on screen, but they take a different direction with the material; the narrative plays quickly and handles big topics while successfully playing out as a rollicking adventure film. Race does play a viable component in the story. While Mudd is shown as a slave owner, it’s one of his freed slaves that takes a job at the prison who acts as a participant in orchestrating his escape (attempt). John Ford might be a tight-lipped journeyman filmmaker (who’d rather eat glass before admitting he was an artist), but he always painted in broad but specific strokes that enabled his genre fare to be more dynamic and elevated than he let on.
The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of the more politically nuanced and compelling dramas from the director’s career, a solid adventure yarn that might be secondary for the director but compelling nonetheless.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: I love that we’re getting more films from John Ford and Howard Hawks. While any informed movie fan is likely familiar with Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and Young Mr. Lincoln, one of Ford’s lesser known efforts would be a welcome change of pace. There’s a Masters of Cinema release of The Prisoner of Shark Island which is another, more tangible case for the film to get the Criterion treatment – I hate to keep defaulting to this line of reasoning, but it’s a recurring trend that holds water.