Warner Baxter in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)


(director: John Ford; screenwriters: Nunnally Johnson/based on the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd; cinematographer: Bert Glennon; editor: Jack Murray; music: R.H. Bassett/Hugo Friedhofer; cast: Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Joyce Kay (Martha Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer, Mudd’s father-in-law), Francis McDonald (John Wilkes Booth), Francis Ford (Cpl. O’Toole), Fred Kohler Jr. (Sgt. Cooper), Harry Carey (Commandant of Fort Jefferson), Paul Fix (David Herold), John Carradine (Sgt. Rankin), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson, Assistant Secretary of War), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Ernest Whitman (Buck Milford); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Nunnally Johnson/Darryl F. Zanuck; Twentieth Century-Fox; 1936)
“Ford makes a convincing and emotionally telling argument for Mudd’s innocence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Ford (“The Searchers”/”Drums Along The Mohawk”/”The Grapes of Wrath”) directs this powerful historical film based on the life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Ford and his screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, a Georgia-born, former New York City newspaperman who got into writing for the movies in the early 1930s, portray Lincoln assassination conspirator Samuel Mudd as the innocent victim due to circumstances who the government made a scapegoat during a show trial because they were more concerned with satisfying public anger than serving justice. Whether this is true or not is still an open question, though the movie is convinced of Mudd’s innocence. Mudd was officially pardoned a long time after the movie. But Mudd did lie to the Commission that tried him, claiming that he had failed to recognize Booth when the two men had in fact met and spent time together some months before when Mudd helped Booth buy a horse in Maryland. Hollywood never lets facts get in the way of its story, but Ford makes a convincing and emotionally telling argument for Mudd’s innocence.

Dr. Samuel A. Mudd (Warner Baxter), the victim of circumstances and known for the saying “your name is mud!”, is the Maryland slaver physician and Confederate sympathizer who treated Lincoln’s actor assassin John Wilkes Booth (Francis McDonald) for a broken leg and gave him directions as he escaped from Washinton’s Ford theater, where he broke his leg while leaping onto the stage from Lincoln’s box after shooting him, and was heading towards Virginia but had to stop at Mudd’s house because he was in such great pain. Soon after Mudd was killed by a Union soldier. The film says it was in Virginia, history says it was just outside Washington. In any case, Mudd receives a life sentence in 1865 in the harsh penal colony of Shark Island, off the coast of Florida, in the sweltering Caribbean, where he is brutally treated by the sadistic prison guard Sgt. Rankin (John Carradine).

Mudd’s wife Peggy (Gloria Stuart) never gives up on her hubby and campaigns desperately to get him pardoned. During a Yellow Fever breakout on Shark Island, Dr. Mudd performs heroically and for his humanitarian efforts in saving lives, the Commandant of Fort Jefferson (Harry Carey) sends to the President a request for clemency, and Rankin, whose life was saved by Mudd, signs it first. In the final scene Mudd and his former slave Buck who was a guard on Shark Island and remained friends after the Emancipation Proclamation, come home to their families in the New South.

Ford’s liberal message is somewhat done in by his nostalgia for the Old South and acceptance of the racism of the time, even though he doesn’t espouse racism. Baxter’s moving and unforgettable performance gives the film its energy; while its earnestness to reflect history in the face of tragedy comes about from the way Ford skillfully tells of the reactions of a grieving country for probably its greatest president.


REVIEWED ON 12/14/2007 GRADE: B+