The Prisoner of Shark Island

Warner Baxter and (barely visible, on the right) Ernest Whitman in The Prisoner of Shark Island (dir. John Ford, 1936).

John Carradine.

Frank McGlynn Sr.

The story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, wrongly accused of complicity in the plot to assassinate Lincoln. Ford's immersion in the milieu of silent film is still very evident here, not only in the mechanics of blocking and framing and such, but in his Griffith-like treatment of the north vs. south theme, complete with repeated scenes in which negroes are depicted as alternately childlike and animalistic. Although, supposedly, Ford actually toned down the racism of Nunnally Johnson's screenplay quite a bit during shooting. Ernest Whitman does manage to infuse the character of ex-slave "Buck" (what else?) with some dignity, despite being required to jump up and down every so often and shout "Ah do declare." (Whitman played "Pinkie" in Jesse James, also scripted by Johnson: "A darkie named Pinkie on a mule named Stinkie.")

Aside from all that, and in spite of the usual historical distortions, it's a compelling story about government manipulation of due legal process, complete with chilling analogues to Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Especially freaky are the pointed hoods placed over the heads of the accused conspirators during the "trial" scene.

1 comment:

John said...

You should read Sarah Vowell's memoir Assassination Vacation. In it, she talks at length about Samuel Mudd and her travels to Shark Island.