25 January 2017

John Ford's PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND

David Edgerley Gates


I had another subject in mind, but then I spotted this coming up on Turner Classic Movies. I couldn't let it slip past unnoticed.

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a lesser-known John Ford, from 1936. It came out after The Lost Patrol and The Informer, and the three pictures he made with Will Rogers. Ford was already established, in other words. He'd won his first directing Oscar for The Informer.  At this point, he probably didn't have to take work he didn't want to, and he didn't suffer much interference. He made Shark Island by choice. Ford said more than once, "It's a job of work," meaning he did what he did for a living, but it's plain his heart was in it.

Shark Island is about Dr. Samuel Mudd, who gets caught up in the conspiracy panic that followed Lincoln's assassination. There was, in fact, a plot, targeting Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson as well as Lincoln, but only John Wilkes Booth got his part right. The others made a hash of it. This didn't keep
four of them from being hanged. Booth himself was shot and killed eleven days after Lincoln's death, but his first night on the run he stopped at a local Maryland doctor's - Dr. Mudd - and the doctor set his broken leg. This was enough to buy Mudd a treason conviction and a life sentence. Was he involved? It's never been established, but Shark Island plays on your sympathies, the innocent man being framed, justice denied.

Let's get the two most serious weak points out of the way. First off, Warner Baxter plays the lead. Big in the silents, made the transition to talkies, but a little overwrought. Admittedly, the acting style goes with the period, and you can get past it. It's a lot harder to get past the second thing, which dates even more badly, and that's the racism. I never thought of Ford as being particularly racist - although a fair number of American Indians might disagree with me - and while he's of course a product of his times, and Hollywood has historically been disrespectful of black people (along with the Chinese, and Mexicans, and plenty of others), Ford is often subversive with his black characters. Stepin Fetchit, in Steamboat Round the Bend, plays it very sly and saucy. His relationship with Will Rogers could be described as two bickering old ladies, Lucy and Ethel. Unhappily, the same can't be said of Ernest Whitman as Buck in Shark Island. Still, it strikes me as an extremely difficult part for a black actor to play without falling into
caricature, and Buck comes perilously close. The real problem is that these attitudes aren't peripheral, they're built into the narrative structure. Buck isn't just comic relief. He's integral to the story, he's a major piece of the action, and he has to walk a very fine line between pretending to Tom it up and demeaning himself. I'm a white guy. I can't step into Ernest Whitman's shoes, or get inside his skin. Maybe he simply figured it was a job of work. I'd like to think he did the best he could by a part that didn't give him much wiggle room - and I wish I could say the script or the director helped him make up for it. Not.

How about what's right with the picture? For openers, Bert Glennon's cinematography. It's the first of eight movies he made with Ford (including Drums Along the Mohawk, Ford's first color feature), and it has one of the most breathtaking pulled-focus shots I've ever seen. Ford's known for not calling attention to himself, or using obtrusive effects. He seems to prefer a static frame, but he moves the camera when he wants to. You see plenty of mobility in his tracking shots. I don't remember a single example of zoom, though. Ford's camera is always the human POV. When he breaks stride, it's doubly startling.

Here's the set-up for the defining moment. Booth slips through the door into the back of Lincoln's box at the theater. You hear the laugh line from the play on-stage, "You sockdologizing old man-trap." Booth shoots the president, and jumps from the box to the stage, but his foot gets tangled in the flag draped from the box. He calls out, "Sic semper tyrannis," and limps off. Lincoln, mortally wounded, is slumped back in his chair. The camera holds. It's a medium shot, Lincoln's upper body and shoulders, his face in three-quarter profile. A curtain falls across, in front of his face. It's lace or embroidery, so you still see Lincoln behind it, slightly blurred. Then he comes into focus, but the embroidered curtain creates a pointillist effect, fragmenting his image, breaking it down into dots, like an engraving. Your eye needs to catch up, and reconstruct him. In that one brief image, Lincoln passes from life into history, leaving a retinal memory. It happens while you're watching.

I first saw Prisoner of Shark Island late one night on a UHF channel, just a programmer they used to fill a time slot. It was some years later that I got to see it in a theater, a Ford revival series at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge - a labor of love, they actually screened something like forty of his pictures over a couple of weeks, and I didn't miss too many. Shark Island drew a capacity crowd, a lot of them film students who hadn't seen it before, and more than a few who were unacquainted with Ford except for the big-ticket movies. Shark Island starts out on a note of low comedy, a joke about the number of kids Buck has, with its obvious racial slant, and Buck asking his mule what the mule thinks, which isn't any too subtle, either. Remember, we're talking about wiseass college kids here, everybody goofing and groaning and poking fun at the picture's dated political attitudes, and when Booth slinks on-screen, practically twirling his mustaches, you've still got people laughing at the exaggerated histrionics of it all. But then. Booth steps forward. He shoots Lincoln. Lincoln sinks back. The curtain falls. Everybody in that movie theater went dead silent. Literally. There wasn't a murmur. Not an embarrassed giggle, not even a gasp. Nothing but absolute, stunned shock.

Okay, the gravity of the event. And maybe these kids were of an age to remember the Kennedy assassination. But there's more to it. Because after Lincoln's murder, the movie goes on to show the courts-martial. You heard that right. The conspirators were tried by military tribunal and without constitutional protections. We see them hooded and shackled during the trial. We see them hanged. The hysteria isn't soft-pedaled, and if the Grassy Knoll is any part of your vocabulary, you feel a familiar dread.

I don't think Shark Island is supposed to be taken as some kind of allegory about the Red Scare or the rise of Fascism or anything like. It's meant to be a rousing yarn, and no more. There is a shark-infested moat, too, but since we're in the Dry Tortugas, that's gilding the lily. And the Yellow Fever epidemic, and the mutiny, no reason to doubt. Dr. Mudd was later pardoned. Whether he was in on the plot has never been decided one way or the other.

TCM is showing The Prisoner of Shark Island on Tuesday, January 31st, at 10:45 PM. Program your DVR's. It's also available on the Ford at Fox boxed DVD set, a collection of Ford's pictures that gives good weight for the money.

6 comments:

David Alan Binder said...

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B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for a fascinating piece, David. I don't think I've ever heard of this movie before, but it sounds as if it's well worth watching--your description of the assassination scene is gripping. I've marked it on my calendar.

John Floyd said...

Enjoyed this, David! The movie has now been added to my Netflix queue.

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks, David - I'll check out the movie on Netflix.

R.T. Lawton said...

David, an interesting read and a part of history, both political and film.

Leigh Lundin said...

I wasn't at all familiar with that movie.

But I loved the Orson Welles Theatre. I used to visit it a lot!