Combustible Celluloid
With: Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Claude Gillingwater, Arthur Byron, O. P. Heggie, Harry Carey, Francis Ford, John McGuire, Francis McDonald, Douglas Wood, John Carradine, Joyce Kay, Fred Kohler, Ernest Whitman, Paul Fix, Frank Shannon, Frank McGlynn Sr., Leila McIntyre
Written by: Nunnally Johnson
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 02/28/1936

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Dragged Through the Mudd

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Though Manny Farber never mentions The Prisoner of Shark Island by name in his seminal essay "Underground Films," I can only guess that it might have been what he was talking about when he praised the "early pre-Stagecoach John Ford" as one of the "masters of the male action film." The Prisoner of Shark Island loosely tells the story of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd (Warner Baxter), who treated John Wilkes Boothe's broken leg the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination. In the movie, the kind, caring Mudd is eventually made a scapegoat after Boothe is killed, he's tried and sentenced by a blatantly unfair court in an attempt to assuage the pain and rage of a nation. By the time he reaches the island prison just off the coast of Florida, the overwhelming hysteria and rumor have turned him into the actual assassin. His time there is brutal; he attempts an escape, but fails, and then is called upon to help when the island is ravaged by yellow fever. Ford's use of light and space is at its height, ramping up a pure, clear sense of righteousness versus hopelessness. It's a vivid portrait of humanity at its best and its worst, still highly relevant today. The movie does include African-American stereotypes, unsurprising for a film made in 1936 which is trying to depict the events of the 1860s, but Ford does attempt some sympathetic portrayals, notably in the character Buck (Ernest Whitman), who forms a friendship with Mudd. Gloria Stuart is very good as Mudd's wife, rallying the troops to come to his rescue, and John Carradine has never been scarier, eyes like glinting razors, as a nasty, hateful sergeant in charge of the prison. Francis McDonald plays Booth, and Frank McGlynn Sr. has a few powerful scenes as Lincoln.

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