159. The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

Leonard's Rating : 

Should be : 

IMDB Rating : 7.4

Rotten Tomatoes Rating :    72%  (with audience)

In his review Leonard says"Excellent film based on the true story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Lincoln assassination and was sentenced to life imprisonment."

"The years have at last removed the shadow which rested upon the name of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland, and the nation which once condemned him now acknowledges the injustice it visited on one of the most unselfish and courageous men in American history."  George L. Radcliffe, U.S. Senator, Maryland.  
I don't really have a big issue with Leonard's rating. This was a really interesting movie by John Ford, but I think we have to point out it is not a true story, and was based on the the book The Life of Dr. Mudd by Nettie Mudd Monroe, the doctor's daughter.

John Ford and Georgia born screen writer Nunnally Johnson slanted the story to make it look as if Mudd had been set-up by the government who were looking to appease the American public following the assassination.  Dixie plays over the opening credits, and then we see the quotation listed above which says that Mudd was one of the most courageous men in American history.

The movie starts with the war ending and Lincoln addressing the crowd. Lincoln has the band played Dixie. The Confederates in the crowd (and the Southerners in the audience), are immediately drawn in.

We then see a really good re-enactment of the Lincoln assassination. The recreation of Ford's Theater is good enough reason to see the film. Booth flees and ends up being directed to Dr. Mudd's house. In a key scene, Dr. Mudd treats Booth's broken leg and has no idea who he is. Dr. Mudd even talks about what a good man Abraham Lincoln is. Here we see Ford again "Printing the Legend", but here it is the Southern legend.

We then hear Mudd's father-in-law, and ex-Confederate officer, lecturing his grand-daughter: ""I'll tell you it was not a question of slavery. it never was. It was a question of states' rights." The fact that he is making his speech in front of a black servant kind of drives home the point of what the Southern point of view was.

Next we see the court-martial court, which is going to conduct the trial of the conspirators, being lectured to by the Assistant Secretary of War. "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." The Secretary also tells them not to be troubled by that legal nonsense, "reasonable doubt."

Cavalry men, searching for Booth, later find Booth's boot, which was removed when Mudd treated him. We then see a carpetbagger lecturing a group of former slaves about their rights. Mudd tells his now former slaves to throw the man off his property and they do. It was very much like the scene where Big Sam said he was going to dig ditches for the South in Gone with the Wind. They chase the carpetbagger off showing their support for their ex-master, not for the man who is coming in to tell them what their rights are.

Mudd's old slave Buck shows up on the island prison that Dr. Mudd is sent to as a guard. Buck was sent by Mrs. Mudd to help her husband escape. Again we see the ex-slave joining in with their master against the Yankees who are destroying their way of life. It's a pretty ugly statement for the movie to make : the slaves were happier with their former life in slavery than they were with their new freedom. It's one thing for the Southern plantation owners to  look back forlornly on their former lifestyle, it's another thing to make believe the former slaves held this view also.

When yellow fever hits the island it is Dr. Mudd who leads the effort to eradicate it. Mudd is a hero as he takes control of the situation. He knows how to order around the black troops because he is a Southern man.

As Dixie plays Buck and Dr. Mudd return to the farm, being freed for Mudd's heroic actions.

My biggest problem with Leonard's review is his saying it is based on the "true" story of Samuel Mudd. He only had a four or five line review, I think he has an obligation to get his facts straight. People reading his review and then watching the movie will think this is real history. We don't really know if Mudd was involved in the assassination plot, but historians do think he may have been a part of Booth's earlier plot to kidnap President Lincoln. We know that Booth and Mudd had met at least three times earlier and that Booth had stayed over at Mudd's house and that Booth had later lied about those meetings.

I love many of John Ford's movies and The Searchers has always been one of my favorite movies. I enjoy the way he "prints the legend" even if it means he is ignoring the facts, but when he ignores the facts to present a world view that is wrong or hurtful, I think it needs to be pointed out.

John Ford played a klansman in one of the most racist American movies ever made, The Birth of a Nation. What was he thinking of? John Ford was born in Portland Maine, and here he is playing a klansman as a heroic figure.

In many of Ford's movies we see positive portrays of Confederate characters or of the post-Civil War Jim Crow days (The Sun Shines Bright, Judge Priest, John Carradine as Hatfield in Stagecoach, Ethan Edwards who took an oath to the Confederate States of America in The Searchers).  Ford had black characters playing Dixie and dancing to the music in The Sun Shines Bright (on My Old Kentucky Home), and  Col. York has Dixie played at the end of Rio Grande.   

In his cavalry trilogy we see Ford trying to bring the North and South together. In Fort Apache it is the ex-Confederate officer played by John Wayne who tries to help the arrogant Union officer played by Henry Fonda. In Rio Grande the Union officer married a Southern woman whose plantation was burned by Sherman. Their son and their reconciliation are signs that the North and South are reunited again too. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, when one of his trooper dies we hear John Wayne as Captain Nathan Brittles.
Captain Nathan Brittles:  I also commend to your keeping, Sir, the soul of Rome Clay, late Brigadier General, Confederate States Army. Known to his comrades here, Sir, as Trooper John Smith, United States Cavalry... a gallant soldier and a Christian gentleman.
Ford was sympathetic to the Gone with the Wind romanticized view of the South. We can see this in many of his films about the Reconstruction era. But his movies were more sympathetic to the ex-Confederated than they were to the ex-slaves, and that's a problem. For Ford, the film maker it might have just been a pragmatic choice, but that doesn't make it the right one. There is no doubt that Ford was more interested in presenting a Unified North and South, than he was in portraying the evils of slavery and the problems that it led to in the post-war years (Ford did make one movie, Sergeant Rutledge (1960), which did explore racism in the post-war years).

This was a really interesting movie for many reasons. We see how movies can be slanted to try to bring the audience to the writer or director's point of view. We often see during war time when movies are used to help unite the people in the common cause.

This movie is really worth seeing, but it not close to being a "true" story. The movie may also have some pretty negative messages about what Ford thinks is our national story.

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