Friday, November 20, 2015

The History of John Ford: The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

When Orson Welles was asked what movies he studied before embarking on directing Citizen Kane he replied, "I studied the Old Masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford." 

Running parallel with our series about Akira Kurosawa ("Walking Kurosawa's Road"), we're running a series of pieces about the closest thing America has to Kurosawa in artistry—director John Ford. Ford rarely made films set in the present day, but (usually) made them about the past...and about America's past, specifically (when he wasn't fulfilling a passion for his Irish roots). 

In "The History of John Ford" we'll be gazing fondly at the work of this American Master, who started in the Silent Era, learning his craft, refining his director's eye, and continuing to work deep into the 1960's (and his 70's) to produce the greatest body of work of any American "picture-maker," America's storied film-maker, the irascible, painterly, domineering, sentimental puzzle that was John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (John Ford, 1936) I've always been fascinated by the events surrounding the assassination of Lincoln. The nation, just after the surrender at Appomattox, was hit once again by a revenge killing by a Southern sympathizer, whose own grandiose ego put the Nation into an uproar, and generated an hysterical government response that usurped the judicial process in the quest for its own vengeance in the prosecution of half-hearted conspirators and acquaintances. 

One of those was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was visited the night of Lincoln's assassination by a fleeing and injured John Wilkes Booth, and who treated a leg fracture sustained in the assassination.* The film would have you believe that Booth and his accomplice—one could call him a "getaway driver" if you transposed it to horses—stumbled on Mudd's house that night, and Mudd, helped the man without any knowledge of the man and his murderous deeds at Ford's Theater of that night.
But it simply wasn't true. Samuel Mudd did know Booth, and had often seen him on-stage, and being a Southern sympathizer himself, had even met with Booth and his followers a few times. The movie depicts them as strangers, which is a stretch of credibility considering Booth's notoriety as an actor. And the two were well-acquainted. And although it can be said that Mudd was not guilty of Lincoln's assassination, he was hardly innocent, either, aiding and abetting the man who was. Mudd was an accessory after the fact, at the very least. But not here.
The Prisoner of Shark Island gets the basic story right, though. Mudd is soon swept up by the law in the hysterical days following the murder, tried with the other conspirators, but is spared the gallows and is, instead, sent to the Dry Tortugas, a prison off the coast of Florida (there is no "Shark Island" in the U.S.—the name is purely exploitative). Mudd was sent to Fort Jefferson on that island, and whether the place was surrounded by a shark-infested moat, as the movie has it, is probably more part of the fabrication that is woven throughout the movie. All the details are wrong. Including a local black sharecropper named "Buck" (played by Ernest Whitman) following Mudd to Dry Totugas at the behest of Mrs. Mudd (Gloria Stuart—you might remember her as the elderly Rose in a little movie called Titanic).
An aside on that: Race relations in the movie might be a bit unsettling for some—the film was made in 1936 and a few years later in 1939, Gone With the Wind (where Whitman has an uncredited role) proved to be as condescending, if not more so. However, the cast of black actors is a bit more extensive, most of them are guards or prisoners, but Mudd treats them (despite his Southern leanings) as peers in the prison situation. I did smile when some of the characters refer to Mudd as "the white boy." You don't hear that every day in early movies.
Anyway, the best part of the movie and where Ford seems to have his interests highest (aside from the dramatically acute assassination sequence) is in an early attempt by Mudd to try escaping from the island, by means of friendly guards, makeshift ropes, and a boat commanded by his wife's father (Claude Gillingwater) who fought for the South. Ford has loved the play of light throughout his career and the sequence is not only suspenseful, but beautiful as well. In Shark Island, Ford has already established an atmospheric way of portraying the prison by dousing it in inky blackness, with any luminescence a metaphor for freedom, but the escape (photographed by Bert Glennon, who worked with von Sternberg—in black and white—and de Toth—in color—and who photographed Ford's Stagecoach, Rio Grande, Wagon Master, and Young Mr. Lincoln in black and white, and Drums Along the Mohawk in Technicolor) is a showcase of interesting angles, shadowy depths, and mastery of light surrounded by darkness.
The escape only worsens his plight, once he is re-captured (John Carradine's malevolent villainy as a vengeful Northern guard is never more apparent than when he casually confronts Mudd with a "Hiya, Judas!") he is thrown into a sweltering pit with Buck, until a yellow fever epidemic overtakes the Fort, killing the only physician on the premises. As the only prisoner with medical experience, he is charged by the Fort's Commandant (played by Ford's first cowboy star, Harry Carey) with trying to halt the spread of the disease (which, despite its conventionality as a "Hollywood" type of idea is historically accurate), for which Mudd is ultimately pardoned.
Warner Baxter, Harry Carey, and Ernest Whitman (lying down) in "the pit"

The true bones of the story make for a good historic melodrama (despite the messing with details and the white-wash of Mudd's relationship with Booth) and that always held an appeal for Ford and the producer that he would collaborate with on some of his greatest films: Darryl F. Zanuck, who was only a year into running his motion picture conglomerate 20th Century Fox. This was their first work together in a string of legendary films that would cement the careers of both men.
The conclusion of Ford's depiction of the assassination—
a veil is drawn across the stricken president, becoming abstract
"Now he belongs to the ages."
Dr. Samuel Mudd

* The legend is that Booth sustained it jumping from the Presidential viewing box in Ford Theater to the stage, where he vaingloriously quoted Shakespeare—"Sic semper tyrranus"—to the horrified crowd and made his escape (this is how it's depicted in the film). Some accounts speculate that Booth got the injury when his horse stumbled and fell on him during his frantic run from Washington D.C. Not as dramatic. In Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaperman says at one point "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Ford was a frequent activist for that practice, as The Prisoner of Shark Island shows throughout its story, which has the basic story right, but the details are enhanced for dramatic effect. Sic semper dramatis (which is a podcast with John Hodgman).

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