The Prisoner of Shark Island Review
In 1935, shortly after his huge success with The Informer, John Ford went to 20th Century Fox to direct The Prisoner of Shark Island, the first in a non-exclusive contract for production chief Darryl F. Zanuck. He ended up making twelve films for Zanuck, amongst them masterpieces such as How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes Of Wrath and My Darling Clementine. The question of how an iconoclast such as Ford managed to get along with a tyrant like Zanuck is a fascinating one – and the two men had already crossed swords over cuts to Steamboat Round the Bend in 1934 – but Ford later claimed that they had an ‘ideal relationship’. Even allowing for the sentimental exaggeration of age, it seems that the discipline exerted by Zanuck sparked something creative in Ford and their collaboration turned out to be remarkably productive. Joseph McBride suggests that Zanuck’s skill at choosing projects for Ford “tapped into Ford’s strengths as a popular artist” and I think that the results show this to be true.
The Prisoner of Shark Island was frequently spoken of by Ford as one of his favourite films and it’s certainly a very personal project. Ford’s fascination with the Civil War is a theme which runs through many of his films, even if he only tackled it head-on in The Horse Soldiers, and it’s certainly present here in one of his darkest, grimmest works. The film deals with the story of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the physician who treated Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth for a broken leg and gave him directions as he escaped towards Virginia. Ford and his screenwriter Nunnally Johnson portray Mudd as the innocent victim of the government-military complex who are more concerned with satisfying public anger than serving the needs of justice. Whether or not this is accurate is a question I will address below but it certainly serves a powerful narrative function and the product is as intensely angry a film as Ford ever made. It’s clearly the product of his left-liberal ‘popular front’ period when fury at injustice was a recurrent theme and the image of a baying lynch mobs appears more than once – memorably in Young Mr Lincoln.
In this context, the attitude to slaves and slave-owning is a little problematic but, typically of Ford, it’s a very complex portrayal of an endlessly complicated situation. Mudd is presented unambiguously as a slave-owner and he is not above using words such as ‘nigra’ in a threatening manner. But the film explores his growing relationship with Buck (Whitman), his one-time slave who becomes a guard on Shark Island in order to help his former master escape. Although the film basically presents a situation in which the status quo is going to remain in place for some time – at the end, Buck thanks Mudd for allowing him to help – it manages to suggest that the black-white relationship of the immediate post-Civil War period was far from a simplistic one. Without suggesting that slavery was in any way welcomed by the slaves themselves, it’s certainly the case that those slaves who were well treated by their owners sometimes found themselves economically disenfranchised by the introduction of sharecropping. The counter argument would be that it’s better to be free and poor than owned and poor but sharecropping was generally introduced without sufficient thought or preparation for the change. Some slaves felt a bond (undoubtedly fostered by a negative culture of subservience) to their masters and resented the treatment they saw them receiving at the hands of the army. Emancipation as a greater good is undeniable but there’s a whole history of complex reality behind the period of reconstruction which needs to be addressed on film. However, the complexity is at least hinted at here – particularly in a scene where a mealy-mouthed Yankee abolitionist is driven off Mudd’s land by his slaves. Ernest Whitman’s performance has a physical power which is very striking for the period and remarkably dignified and it’s very notable that John Ford reserves the final scene not for Dr Mudd but for Buck’s reunion with his family.
Given the role of a lifetime, Warner Baxter is quite unforgettable as Dr Mudd. It’s a great part, the unwitting victim of a show trial condemned to certain death on an arid island prison, and Baxter gives it everything he’s got. His Mudd is an honourable, kind-hearted man who suffers the trials of Job and Baxter’s face is expressive enough to draw us in to an incredibly melodramatic story. His acting isn’t exactly subtle – it never was – but its got a raw emotional power which is entirely right for this film. I think it’s the highpoint of Baxter’s career. He had won an Oscar in 1929 for In Old Arizona and starred memorably in 42nd Street but after this, and occasional good projects like Wyler’s The Road To Glory, he somehow tumbled down into pulp and became best known for starring as the ‘Crime Doctor’ in a popular series of B-Movies. This is very much a showcase role but Baxter is well supported by a cast of familiar faces including the beautiful Gloria Stuart, Harry Carey and a riveting John Carradine as a brutal prison guard. Incidentally, Carradine’s role, and quite a few of the situations in this film, turn up in virtually every other prison film ever made from Each Dawn I Die to The Shawshank Redemption.
Perhaps knowing that this was a big chance for a big studio, Ford’s direction of The Prisoner of Shark Island is an exemplary piece of work. On a basic level, it has tremendous professionalism, knowing when to understate and when to pull out all the emotional stops – scenes such Mudd being informed of the verdict and the wonderful climactic homecoming of Buck are in the full-blooded register of his work on , surely one of the most emotionally exhausting movies ever made. His directorial style here is simple but subtle, using favourite motifs of ritual repetition – the soldiers marching the prisoners into the courtroom – and visual patterns – the lovely moment when Lincoln’s face is covered by a cross-hatched veil which always seems to me to represent the longed for Union represented by the Stars and Stripes and now seemingly shattered by Wilkes’s bullet.
What does become very noticeable, not for the first time in Ford’s work, is the influence of Expressionism and particularly of Murnau, whose film Sunrise was one of Ford’s favourites. The lighting, which Ford worked out with his DP Bert Glennon, is full of harsh contrasts, creating an interplay of light and dark and doom-laden shadows which irresistibly remind one that Film Noir is only ten years away. As many critics have observed, it’s a far more fluid work of visual art than The Informer, even if that film is considerably more famous.
For many modern viewers, who may well be more exercised by the presentation of slavery, the story of Dr Mudd will be unfamiliar and they may be tempted to take the film at face value. But it’s important to remember that for Ford and Johnson, good liberals both, Mudd is a symbol of authoritarian injustice far more than he is a historical character and they consequently mess about with the historical facts in order to make this emphasis. What is undeniable is that his conviction was a sham, part of a show-trial designed solely to appease public anger and provide the appearance of justice. However, it’s also true that Mudd lied to the Commission that tried him, claiming that he had failed to recognise Booth when it has become clear that the two men had met and spent time together some months before when Mudd helped Booth buy a horse in Maryland. Beyond this, there is much debate about what Mudd knew or whether he was involved in the conspiracy – some of the conspirators claimed that Mudd was an accomplice in an abortive plot to kidnap Lincoln and that he was aware that plans were afoot to kill the president. It’s a fascinating story but the triumph of Ford’s film is that he convinces us that Mudd is the classic innocent man caught up in events beyond his control. Historical reality, in the face of such cinematic skill, is irrelevant.
The Prisoner of Shark Island has been rarely seen in the UK and it’s great to see it finally released on DVD by Eureka as part of their excellent Masters Of Cinema series.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with the correct mono soundtrack. The picture is generally excellent – crisp, sharp and possessing excellent definition. Some print damage is present from time to time and there is occasional over-enhancement but the slightly grainy look is delightfully cinematic and the level of detail is very impressive. The mono soundtrack is equally pleasing with crystal-clear dialogue and a strong music track. There is a slight crackle but that’s characteristic of the period and, again, fans of old movies will delight in it.
Eureka offer us three substantial extra features. There’s a commentary from Scott Eyman which is useful and entertaining, concentrating on observations about the film and background detail about Ford and the production. I’m not convinced about some of his arguments but he makes a good case for them. We also get a short but intense video interview with critic David Ehrenstein who offers an African-American perspective on the film, concentrating largely on the character of Buck. Finally, there’s a stills gallery of promotional material. Sadly, no trailer seems to exist for the film. In addition to the extras on the disc, there is a detailed booklet containing an essay by Lindsay Anderson, a 1955 interview with Ford (which only vaguely touches on Shark Island), some contemporary reviews and some poster reproductions in black and white
English subtitles are offered for the film but, regrettably, not the extra features. That’s the only seriously negative comment I can find to make about this highly impressive package which is definitely recommended.