Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Prisoner of Shark Island

Another movie that's returning to FXM after a long absence is The Prisoner of Shark Island, tomorrow morning at 8:40 AM.

The movie begins in April 1865, which should bring some obvious things to mind if you know your American history. First, it's the end of the Civil War, something we've seen in a number of Westerns. More importantly, however, a few days after the armistice was signed at Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater. Booth, played here by Francis McDonald, jumps down from the President's Box to the stage, where he informed the audience, "Sic semper tyrannis!", or "Thus ever to tyrants!", which was also the state motto of Virginia. After that, Booth ran off the stage to make his escape.

Or, more likely, he limped off the stage, trying to run as best he could. He had broken one of his legs in the fall, and he and his co-conspirator go off on horseback, eventually looking for a doctor to treat that leg. They wind up at the home of one Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter), who obviously doesn't know what has happened because news didn't travel nearly as fast back in 1865. Not knowing Lincoln was shot, he also doesn't know that this man he's treating is the man who shot Lincoln. Besides, there's the Hippocratic Oath; duty would force him to treat the man.

Not that the authorities care about this. They're looking for Booth, and the trail eventually takes them to Dr. Mudd's residence. They discover that Booth was there, and since this is such a notorious crime, they arbitarily declare despite all of Mudd's protestations, that Mudd must have been part of the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. There's a trial -- not much of one -- for all of the alleged conspirators. Many of them are sentenced to execution, which is carried out summarily without much chance of appeal. Mudd is a bit luckier, if you can call it lucky, in that he's only sentenced to life in prison doing hard labor at a prison camp on "Shark" Island, in the Dry Tortugas.

The prison on such an isolated island is unsurprisingly awful and life there is especially brutal for Mudd because one of the guards (John Carradine) finds out about Mudd and treats Mudd even worse than the rest of the prisoners. Still, Mudd is luckier than the other conspirators in that, not having been executed, there's a chance that his supporters back in the mainland US, led by his wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart; in real life Mudd's wife was named Sarah), could successfully appeal for clemency. The fact that Mudd was able to take over the position of prison physician and deal with a yellow fever epidemic certainly helped in that regard.

It's been quite a few years since I've seen The Prisoner of Shark Island, since it's a Fox film and FXM or the predecessor Fox Movie Channel haven't aired it since I don't know when. It got an airing on TCM quite a few years back when TCM was promoting the "Ford at Fox" box set (the movie was directed by John Ford) and several relatively rare movies were run on TCM when they'd be run nowhere else. It's an interesting movie, and I'm glad to see it showing up on TV again.

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