1930s, 3/4, History, John Ford, Review

The Prisoner of Shark Island

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

#38 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.

Abraham Lincoln has been on the edge of a few of John Ford’s work, most notably The Iron Horse where he was the impetus for the overall action of building a transcontinental railroad (Ulysses S. Grant deserved no mention, apparently). Here, Ford tells the story of a man accused of conspiracy in the assassination of Lincoln, Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, a Maryland country doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth’s jump from the balcony at Ford’s Theater and before word of the deed had reached the Mudd family farm in the countryside.

The movie begins with the very nice and truthful moment of on the night that news of Lee’s surrender reached Washington City, the crowds came to the White House lawn where Lincoln (Frank McGlynn) appeared to the crowd. From his balcony, wrapped in a blanket over his suit, he asked the band there to play “Dixie”, as a spoil of war, but actually the first act of reconciliation he planned towards the South, a gesture of goodwill. Then, John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald) sneaks into Lincoln’s private booth in Ford’s Theater and puts a bullet in his head, breaking his leg on the fall to the stage, and running off.

In the Maryland countryside is Dr. Samuel A. Mudd (Warner Baxter) waits with his wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart) for news of one of his slaves who is expecting to delivery her twelfth child when Booth and his two confederates arrive at his door begging for help. Mudd helps him, unknowing who he is or what he has done, and is granted $50 in Union money for his trouble. With dreams of life turning around from the hardship of the Civil War, Mudd goes off to help deliver that baby.

The next day, Federal troops raze through Maryland, following Booth’s tracks, and round up everyone who helped him in any way, either directly or indirectly, including Mudd. The military court used by the new administration is designed to appease the baying mobs outside on the streets, and they run roughshod over everyone brought before them, seven men and one woman. Mudd can only give an impotent plea before he’s convicted for life and sent to Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortuga, the eponymous Shark Island, so named because it uses a moat filled with sharks as a protective border.

The bulk of the movie occurs here with Mudd protesting his innocence in the face of guards who see him as the man who killed the greatest man in history. His former slave Buck (Ernest Whitman) made his way down to Florida at Peggy’s insistence, signing up and becoming a guard in the newly appointed colored guard at the prison. Together, they help carry out an escape plan organized by Peggy to get Mudd out, into a civilly controlled area, and serve him a writ of habeas corpus in order to try and get him into a civilian court and retry him there where the legal requirements are a bit more strict. The escape goes wrong, and Mudd and Buck end up in a tortuous solitary confinement just as a yellow fever outbreak hits the prison. When the prison becomes desperate at the collapse of their own doctor due to the fever, they bring out Mudd to help, getting them through the pandemic at great sacrifice to himself, earning the respect of those guarding him and eventually earning a presidential pardon from Andrew Johnson.

It’s a history that bears some resemblance to the actual events. There was an escape attempt, but it probably didn’t involve Peggy at all. There was a yellow fever outbreak, as well, but Mudd probably didn’t order a cannon fired on the vessel anchored off shore that was unwilling to deliver necessary supplies. It’s all heightened drama, and Ford manages the production well. With solid actors doing good work, especially Baxter who’s in almost every scene, giving a dedicated performance, the film is a good piece of entertainment that touches on real life and a subject obviously near and dear to John Ford’s heart.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “The Prisoner of Shark Island”

      1. Oh I guess it starts with the slave-owning Marylander (slave ownership in Maryland was rare and typically the exclusive province of assholes) and your mention of him firing on a ship as a way of making it ‘help’ just doesn’t stir me.

        I haven’t seen it, of course, so it’s not like I’m pissed off about it, like I am the Wheel of Time adaptation.


      2. It wasn’t any kind of challenge. It was just a bit of curiosity about the description I had made along with any historical bits you had hidden away.

        It’s definitely not Ford’s best, but if you’re willing to dig deeper into his body of work, it’s something I’d recommend slightly.


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