While scores of Civil War buffs and Oscar prognosticators pore over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, opening this weekend—questioning its compression of historical fact, debating the folksy speech pattern Daniel Day-Lewis has fashioned for the country’s most beloved orator—I admit I can’t shake a certain sound buried in the mix. Beneath the film’s soaring French horns and backroom quarrels, I detect the faint echo of a television set being wheeled into a high-school history class.
Something about this particular variety of period piece—American exceptionalism, stovepipe hats, sun-drenched Capitol Dome windows—dials us back into a schoolroom stance, where we accept, and perhaps even encourage, an over-simplified view of our past. Stay in your desk, watch the movie, this is how it went. And yet it’s a Lincoln film that might be the least accurate and, arguably, most manipulative of all that somehow speaks the clearest. After revisiting John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, a 1936 polemic set against the assassination of Lincoln and the swift punishment of his conspirators, it’s remarkable to reflect on the film’s reverberations today: a nation divided, racial intolerance, mob rule in the wake of an act of terror, show trials, overcrowded prisons and an island battered and stripped of vital supplies by a hurricane along the Atlantic.
Based on the life of Samuel A. Mudd, the Maryland physician who tended to John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after his infamous stage dive, the film argues passionately for Mudd’s exoneration, opening with a signed letter from Senator George L. Radcliffe of Maryland declaring that the nation “now acknowledges the injustice it visited on one of the most unselfish and courageous men in American history.” Before the first frame, Ford is already printing the legend.
To bolster the wrong-man narrative, Ford and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson purged the essential fact that Booth and Mudd were known acquaintances and that Booth was, in fact, an overnight guest at Mudd’s country home. (The film portrays theirs as a chance run-in, wrapped up in a jiff.) Union soldiers scouring the countryside nab Mudd and lump him in with seven co-conspirators facing an impervious military tribunal. Forgiving, for a moment, the short cuts and liberties taken to land his victim in custody, Ford’s critique once inside the kangaroo court is scathing. Jurors are coached to avoid any “pedantic regard for the customary rules of evidence” and ignore “that obnoxious creation of legal nonsense: reasonable doubt.” When they deliver the expected verdict, Ford’s fury only grows.
Watching the film in a revival house in 2008, there were audible gasps as the manacled and hooded detainees first shuffled into the courtroom, a sight all too reminiscent of the Guantanamo Bay perp walks haunting the headlines. The only conspirator spared from the gallows, Mudd is cast off to the furthest reaches of American power: the prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas islands, off the coast of Florida. Again, ghosts of Guantanamo linger.
How Ford was able to portray the sense of isolation and dread on this tiny speck in a turbulent ocean while remaining confined to the 20th Century Fox back lot is astonishing. The tension is heightened in part by a shark-infested moat that lines the walls of the prison, adding another hopeless obstacle for its captives. (Shark Island stirred ancient shark-fin fears forty years before Jaws, and offers the closest rival to Spielberg’s classic chumming scene.) More menacing is the sadistic, smoke-ring-blowing prison guard portrayed by John Carradine, whose tarantula limbs and akimbo stance would leave Joaquin Phoenix in a twist. The sense of satisfaction he takes in demeaning Mudd (“Hiya, Judas” is a favorite taunt) surpasses even the lynch mob still simmering back home.
However, vindication is within reach. When an epidemic of “yellow jack” sweeps the island, the lone medic at the prison curls up and dies under a cannon, in full view of the horrified (and largely contaminated) staff. Mudd is now their last hope. I’ll leave the climax, which unfolds as endless buckets of soundstage rain dump onto the delirious cast, to the delight of the viewer.
Perhaps as a result of his fortitude—Shark Island was one of over twenty films Ford directed in the 1930s alone—and his silent-era training, Ford’s pictures penetrate deeper than the unfulfilling middle ground that often grinds loquacious biopics and procedurals to a halt. For one, though Lincoln’s mythology occupies every corner of the film, he’s featured only briefly in an opening cameo. Slumped over in pebble glasses, felled by Booth’s bullet, a silk curtain unfurls over the lens and the idol fades from view. In a few precise movements, we feel the nation’s loss without being steeped in it. (On a similar note, Ford was able to convince Henry Fonda to star in Young Mr. Lincoln simply by stressing that it was the story of a Springfield lawyer, not the icon of un-filmable grandiosity.) Ford’s skirting of facts in Shark Island is troubling at times, as is the treatment of black soldiers and Maryland slaves, all of whom must hunch and eye-pop in unison. Ending on a false note as the strings swell is another price to pay, yet Shark Island still manages, seventy-five years later, to be adventurous, bizarre, redemptive, and blistering in its assessment of American power. A must for the Lincoln catalog.