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The Prisoner of Shark Island

Screening on Film
Directed by John Ford.
With Warner Baxter, Gloria Stuart, Claude Gillingwater.
US, 1936, 35mm, black & white, 95 min.
Print source: Academy Film Archive

Ford’s prints the legend, rather than the fact, in his rousing film about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was jailed for his purported role in the assassination of President Lincoln after tending John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Although Mudd and Booth knew each other prior to the murder, it is unclear to this day whether Mudd knew or was part of Booth’s plan. Ford offers his interpretation of the events by presenting Mudd as an innocent figure whose unjust imprisonment is met with saintly forbearance. Despite several moments of racial caricature, The Prisoner of Shark Island is both nightmarish and ultimately quite moving, redeemed by the film’s chronicling of the relationship between Mudd and one of his former slaves, whose devotion to each to the other is tested by hardship.

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