Monday, April 8, 2013

The Prisoner of Shark Island (20th Century-Fox, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Prisoner of Shark Island, another item (like Young Mr. Lincoln) from the Ford at Fox boxed set, a voluminous package containing 24 films on DVD in a 12” x 12” x 3” box so intimidating that we haven’t watched as many of the movies in it as we no doubt would have if it had been more normally packaged. (“It’s like getting out the family Bible!” Charles joked.) This was on my list of Lincoln-related movies I wanted to see again after we watched the most recent films about him, Robert Redford’s The Conspirator and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — including the 1930 D. W. Griffith biopic Abraham Lincoln and Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln from 1939 — and was one of the most interesting one since it deals at least in part with the same story as The Conspirator: the arrest of eight people for conspiring to kill Lincoln (and, though Nunnally Johnson’s script here doesn’t make the point, to assassinate the next two people in line for the presidency, vice-president Andrew Johnson and secretary of state William Seward: the plotters were a group of diehard Confederates from Virginia and their aim was to decapitate the Union government and thereby accomplish through assassination what the South had been unable to win on the battlefield) and the decision of the U.S. government (particularly secretary of war Edwin Stanton) to try them by a military tribunal rather than a civilian court.

The Prisoner of Shark Island was released by 20th Century-Fox but was actually produced for Darryl F. Zanuck’s Twentieth Century Pictures before it merged with Fox — and it was pretty clear that some of the prison sets themselves were recycled from Twentieth Century’s mega-hit version of The Count of Monte Cristo with Robert Donat as star and Rowland V. Lee as director two years earlier. The parallels don’t end there because both are stories about innocent men thrown into horrible prisons for their alleged involvements in political conspiracies — really for their bad luck in ending up on the wrong side of a civil war. The central character of Prisoner is Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter in the best performance of his career; the enervated quality that frequently made him annoying is just right for this part), the Maryland country doctor who on the night of Lincoln’s assassination was visited by two men fleeing from Washington, D.C. to Virginia. One of the men had a broken leg and asked Dr. Mudd to set it, which Mudd did. Unbeknownst to Mudd — at least in this version; The Conspirator took a quite different view of him — the man with the broken leg was John Wilkes Booth and he had broken his leg making his dramatic leap from the box at Ford’s Theatre where he had fatally shot Lincoln to the stage, crying out, “Sic semper tyrannis!” Mudd admitted he’d seen Booth before on stage as an actor but said he’d never met him off-stage and hadn’t recognized him the night Booth came to his door and he set Booth’s leg.

Nonetheless, he’s arrested by Union officers — who arrive when Mudd’s out delivering the 12th baby of his favorite slave, Buck (Ernest “Bubbles” Whitman, later the announcer on the Armed Forces Radio Service’s Jubilee broadcasts and Hattie McDaniel’s boyfriend on the TV series Beulah), and his wife Rosabelle (played by Hattie McDaniel’s near-lookalike sister Etta, though she doesn’t appear until a gag scene at the end) — so the first person they meet in Mudd’s family is his diehard Confederate sympathizer father-in-law, Col. Dyer (Claude Gillingwater). They find the boot Mudd had cut off Booth’s foot in order to set his leg, with his first two names crudely scratched out of the inside (John Wilkes Booth would have been vain enough to wear personalized boots!) but clearly recognizable, when Mudd’s daughter Martha (Joyce Kay) is playing with it as a sled for her doll. Mudd is arrested and put on trial with the seven other alleged conspirators in a series of sequences in which Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon go for broke with the expressionistic effects — Ford actually went through a fairly long period of expressionist atmospherics which pretty much ended with the 1937 RKO biopic Mary of Scotland, starring Katharine Hepburn; with the success of Stagecoach in 1939 (his first Western since the undeserved financial failure of his late-silent masterpiece Three Bad Men in 1926) Ford’s films eschewed dark, shadowy atmospherics for the bright daylight of the Western genre and the broad vistas of Monument Valley.

The prisoners are brought into the courtroom wearing hoods — historically accurate (the idea was to protect them against being lynched) but also a great movie effect — and Ford and Glennon give us a series of heart-rending close-ups that vividly contrast the overall seediness of these men (we’re supposed to believe Mudd doesn’t belong here because he’s so much nattier-looking than his co-defendants) with the enormity of the crime they’re being tried for and railroaded into conviction and execution. Both Prisoner and the recent Conspirator contain strikingly similar scenes condemning the use of military courts to try civilians — if anything, Nunnally Johnson’s script is even more radical than James D. Solomon’s for The Conspirator; Johnson has the court’s convener, assistant secretary of war Erickson (Arthur Byron), order the nine generals sitting in judgment against the prisoners to “be hard” and not be swayed by such civilian nonsense as “reasonable doubt.” The trial takes place behind closed doors and neither Mudd nor his attorney, General Ewing (Douglas Wood), is permitted to offer a defense — Mudd tries to speak in his own defense, he’s shut up instantly, and asked to make sure his client maintains respect for the court, Ewing delivers the barbed rejoinder, “I’m sure my client has as much respect for this court as I do.”

All eight alleged conspirators are sentenced to hang (historically inaccurate; in real life, only four of them were) and Mudd doesn’t find out until he’s in the courtyard facing the gallows with the rest of them, with his wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart — whose presence here puts Warner Baxter one degree of separation from Leonardo di Caprio!) and daughter looking on, that his sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment on Dry Tortugas, a Caribbean island at the end of the Florida archipelago that includes Key West. Once there he meets up with the sadistic Sgt. Rankin (John Carradine in one of his best performances — as Charles pointed out, he’s scarier here than he was in most of his horror films!), who’s determined to dispatch Dr. Mudd as soon as he can find a pretext for shooting him. He’s shunned by everyone, including prison doctor MacIntyre (O. P. Heggie), whom Mudd was hoping that in setting Booth’s leg he was just following the Hippocratic Oath and giving him the medical care he deserved no matter what he’d done.

The only supporter he has on the island is Buck, who’s hired on as a guard — most of the prisoners on Dry Tortugas (called “Shark Island” because the prison, ironically called “Arcadia” and bearing over its gate Dante’s famous motto about abandoning hope all who enter here, is surrounded by a shark-filled moat) — are white and most of the guards are Black) and smuggles him messages from home and necessary items like soap, important less for cleanliness than as a protection against mosquito bites. Mudd makes a desperate attempt to escape — he was hoping to get as far as Key West, turn himself in to civilan authorities and get the normal civilian trial he should have had in the first place — but is caught and thrown in solitary confinement. Then a yellow-fever epidemic hits the prison and MacIntyre himself is stricken — and with Mudd the only doctor on board, and ships that are supposed to be delivering medicines and supplies unwilling to land on the island for fear their crews would catch the disease, he’s finally released from solitary and put in charge of caring for the victims, including Sgt. Rankin and, eventually, Mudd himself. When the next ship bearing medicine refuses to land, Mudd has the Black cannoneers fire on it until its captain agrees to land on the island and offload the needed supplies. Eventually Mudd’s heroic fight against the epidemic — including opening the windows to air out the hospital wards — wins him a pardon from President Andrew Johnson and he’s able to return home to his family in Maryland.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of the greatest movies ever made — even though it’s saddled with one of the tackiest titles ever, one which makes it seem more an action-adventure or a horror film than an historical drama. It’s beautifully cast throughout — Ford threw a lot of his “regulars” into it, including Harry Carey as the commandant at Dry Tortugas, but they’re less recognizable here than they usually were — and vividly staged; Bert Glennon put all the lessons in expressionist filmmaking he’d learned from working with Josef von Sternberg at Ford’s disposal, and working with a story about the claustrophobic prison environment rather than the wide-open spaces of the Old West, Ford nonetheless shows off his chops as an action and suspense director. The nature of the story keeps Ford’s sentimentality — like Chaplin, Ford’s sentimental streak was his biggest weakness as an artist — in check, and in a wise and unusual move for 1936 he uses almost no background music. The scenes of Warner Baxter’s escape attempt actually gain power and force from being left unscored; without an annoying music track telling us how we’re supposed to feel, we nonetheless emotionally identify with Mudd and sympathize with him for seeing the rash act of an escape attempt as his only way out of an impossible situation.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of Ford’s least-known films and, to my mind, one of his best — despite the annoying streak of racism in its treatment of the Black characters. Though Ford wasn’t as racist as D. W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, The Prisoner of Shark Island reflects the same view of Blacks: “good” Blacks are faithful, lovable servants of their white masters and betters; “bad” Blacks join armies, take up guns and rebel against the natural order that fitted them only for servitude. Ford’s movies were often surprisingly progressive economically but tone-deaf when it came to depicting people of color; in Stagecoach the villain is an absconding bankers and the moral judgments are those of populism, but the Indians are the mindless hordes they were usually depicted as in films of the classic era. Incidentally, though the recent film The Conspirator tallies with Prisoner in its depiction of the military tribunal that tried the alleged conspirators as an affront to the Constitution and to human decency, its script found Mudd guilty as charged, claiming that he and Booth had been friends and Mudd had seen a lot more of the actor than just sitting in the audience in his performances. Nonetheless, there have been ongoing attempts — most recently in 1992 — on the part of Mudd’s descendants to have him fully exonerated, and another pro-Mudd version of the story was done by the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse TV show in 1958 and the actor playing Mudd was Lew Ayres, who as a conscientious objector in World War II certainly knew something about being shunned and punished for his politics!