RARE & VINTAGE: The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone.  Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed.  In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.

The Prisoner of Shark Island by crazedigitalmovies

Imagine you’re a country doctor, living in Maryland with your wife and daughter.  Late one night, a desperate man comes banging at your door, his leg severely wounded.  Naturally, you treat his injury—you took the Hippocratic oath.  The mysterious man then takes his leave, and later, you find out he was a famous actor.  Name of John Wilkes Booth.  Hours before meeting you, he shot the president, and you’ve been instrumental in abetting his escape.  How do you feel about that, sucker?

In Warner Baxter’s performance as Samuel Mudd, the aforementioned country doctor, the response is astonishment, denial, dread, rage, panic, and finally deep black despair.  And that’s all in the first act.  Before they break his spirit.  Most tellingly, however, is that at no point in the film does he express a flicker of remorse.

Like most movies “based on a true story,” The Prisoner of Shark Island plays fast and loose with historical details for the sake of drama.  But what it lacks in factual accuracy, it makes up for by authentically capturing the social climate of the days and weeks surrounding the assassination.  The bereaved nation he fought so hard to unify and enlighten is assembled in the streets, crying out for blood.  Sure, Booth was gunned down while resisting arrest, but that’s not good enough. They want a hanging.  You know, something they can all enjoy.

So the military rounds up eight of Booth’s conspirators, including Dr. Mudd, for a speedy execution that will mollify the rabid public.  But first, a quick show-trial.  After all, this is America.  In a private meeting of the officers who will adjudicate Mudd’s military trial, the Assistant Secretary of War (Arthur Byron) gives them a speech that seems to have been clipped from a Dystopian novel:

“The object of this trial is not to determine the guilt or innocence of a handful of rebels, but to save this country from further bloodshed… You must not allow your judgment and decision in this case to be troubled by any trifling technicalities of the law.  Or any pedantic regard for the customary rules of evidence… You must not allow yourself to be influenced by that obnoxious creation of legal nonsense, ‘reasonable doubt.’  Is that clear?  The voice of this court has got to be the voice of the people…”

He then gestures to the window—outside, The People are burning the conspirators in effigy.

Here, the Assistant Secretary of War is something like a dark reflection of Lincoln.  He has the same ultimate objective—to preserve the Union at all costs—but his decisions aren’t tempered by compassion.  In this way, The Prisoner of Shark Island makes for an interesting comparison to Spielberg’s Lincoln, in which Honest Abe must also dance around legality in order to maintain a nation founded on that very principle.

Okay, yes, yes, but what about Shark Island?

Mudd, the only convict not hanged, is instead incarcerated on an island called Shark Island.  If you took Alcatraz, filled it with deadly insects, doused it in a plague of yellow fever, and, yes, surrounded it with man-eating sharks, it would be something like Shark Island.  A title card refers to it as “a bit of burning white hell in the Gulf of Mexico, where life imprisonment was an ironic term for slow death,”  which is pretty fucking metal.  On top of the insufferable living conditions, everyone on the island treats Mudd as if he’d pulled the trigger himself, especially the sinister Sgt. Rankin (John Carradine), who greets Mudd with a punch to the face and refers to him only as “Judas.”

randv shark island 3Carradine’s performance is mesmerizing, and his gaunt, tight-lipped face make for some memorable close-ups.  Most notably, a moment during Mudd’s escape attempt, where Rankin is gazing out the window, pensively smoking a cigar, as the twin lights of Mudd’s escape ship are reflected in his eyes.

Scenes like this are indicative of the hand of the director, the legendary John Ford.  Ordinarily, when we talk about Ford, we talk about Stagecoach.  We might also mention The Searchers, and The Grapes of Wrath, and Rio Grande, and if we go on long enough, maybe even The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  It’s a pity that The Prisoner of Shark Island is comparatively unexamined, because Ford’s brilliant, innovative sense of scope, with which he so famously photographed the American plains, is equally apparent as he captures the crowded streets of Washington, D.C., or the claustrophobic tunnels of a penal colony.  You’ll never see another prison breakout sequence shot like this.

Although Mudd makes it past the guards and the sharks and the escape is successful, he’s recaptured at the last minute and dragged back to the island.  As punishment, they through him into a pit, along with the accomplice, his loyal servant (formerly his loyal slave), who followed him to the island.

Meanwhile, up above, everyone is dying of yellow fever.  Because if you put a bunch of people and a bunch of mosquitoes on an island together, the mosquitoes are going to win.  When even the staff doctor falls victim to the disease, they decide it’s time to drudge up Mudd from his hole in the ground.  Mind you, Mudd and his friend have been lying in this pitch-black oubliette for days with nothing but a bucket of water and a pile of straw.  Suddenly, a guard comes down asking if he’d mind risking his life to treat their little plague outbreak situation.  After everything he’s been through, he’d have every right to tell them all to go straight to Hell.  What he says instead is, “Once before I was a doctor.  I’m still a doctor.”

He says it as though he’s trying to keep himself from crying.

Not only does he help, he works himself past the point of exhaustion, inspiring the terrified guards to assist him, and convincing a reluctant supply ship to dock on Shark Island by firing cannonballs at it until it comes to shore (hey, it works).  In the end, he succumbs to the fever himself, but his grateful captors circulate a petition to President Johnson to have Mudd pardoned.  Sgt. Rankin, after an equal dose of fever medicine and humble pie, volunteers to be the first to sign.

Back in Maryland, as his wife and daughter await the return of the prodigal Mudd, they embrace, anxiously, and Mrs. Mudd whispers, “Darling, Daddy’s coming home.  And when he comes, he… he may not look like he did when… when we last saw him, but don’t say so.  Don’t look at him like that, dear, just… because… his face may be old and sad and tired.  And he may be thin and… and his hair… but don’t notice it, dear, just… just kiss him.  Kiss his cheeks.  And his eyes.  And his arms.  And his wrists…”  And then she sobs into the breast of the child she was trying to console.

A simple story has a wrongly convicted man prove his innocence.  A simple story has a guilty man see the error of his ways and redeem himself.  A complex story has a man of arguable fault who must overcome great suffering for doing what would’ve been, under other circumstances, “the right thing.”  And an awesome story sends a man to a place called Shark Island.

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About Jared Latore

Jared Latore is a Chicago-based author, writer and podcaster, and the co-host of the Alcohollywood podcast.

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