The Prisoner of Shark Island

“The Civil War fascinated John Ford, and he would return to it many times - but never with the depth of feeling and emotional resonance that he brought to The Prisoner of Shark Island. Based on a true incident, the film follows Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Southern, slave-owning doctor who was implicated (perhaps falsely, perhaps not) in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Sentenced to life on a prison island, Mudd was finally pardoned - but he was never cleared.

“Ford tells the tale as a metaphor of hatred and healing, as a way into the larger questions raised by the war. Hence, although Mudd is at the center, in many ways the most important parts of the film take place off to the sides, or in the background. In this sense, the most extraordinary set-pieces are Lincoln's death (in which Ford shows us life becoming history simply by changing focus from Lincoln's face to the veil drawn across it, letting the President's features melt into familiar, abstract planes of black and white), and the marvelous scene in which Mudd's unreconstructed father goes out to raise money for his son's defense by selling his greatest treasure - Stonewall Jackson's sword. (Typically, here, Ford defuses the emotional overload, and saves the old man's pride, by giving him a gag-line. ‘If I don't get $150 for this,' swears the old man, brandishing the sabre, ‘I'll have the pleasure of splitting the heart of the man who offers me less.' As always, Ford admires style above all else.)

“There is a problem, however. If Ford was bum-rapped for racial stereotypes in Steamboat, this time the accusation is more convincing....
“It throws off the balance of the film in delicate but crucial ways - since, on one level, Shark Island is ‘about' race-relations. If the film weren't so close to a masterpiece it wouldn't be so sad; the lesson, I suppose, is that prejudice is its own punishment.”

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