In the conclusion to John Ford, Peter Bogdanovich reflects on the director’s career and death. He recalls Jane Fonda picketing the American Film Institute’s presentation of their first Life Achievement Award to Ford because President Nixon was present. Bogdanovich sees a shortsightedness to Fonda’s protest and a timelessness to the director’s work. Though Ford may have held disagreeable political views (whose aren’t?), Bogdanovich writes, “His best movies–and there are many of them–are for all our days” (109). A film’s resonance with its audiences dpends on both the effectiveness of the filmmaking team and the socio-political, cultural millieu into which it is released and in which it is subsequently viewed. Most recently, we can easily imagine that Iraq war films that tank now might find a second wind in a few years as we continually judge our involvement in Iraq. Truly great films resonate throughout the decades regardless of what climate surrounds their release or viewing. At their heart, these films often address “ultimate questions,” shared experiences that characterize what it means to be human. John Ford made these kinds of films. One in particular, however, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), has a special relevance for out time as it addresses the loss of civil liberties in the name of American patriotism.
The Prisoner of Shark Island tells the story of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd (played most effectively by Warner Baxter), the family doctor who was wrongly tried and imprisoned for treason. The film opens with celebrations of the end of the Civil War and cuts to a balcony shot of President Abraham Lincoln asking the band in the crowd to play “Dixie.” In the next scene we see President Lincoln at the theater enjoying “Our American Cousin.” The camera follows John Wilkes Booth as he sneaks into Lincoln’s box, shoots him, and flees. As Booth jumps off the balcony, he breaks his leg, and on his escape to Virginia, must stop for medical attention which he receives from Dr. Mudd. Believing that he is simply a man on his way to visit his dying mother, Dr. Mudd treats Booth and hurredly sees him off. When soldiers canvas the area for leads on Booth’s whereabouts, they round up any and all people who reportedly made contact with him, even a man from whom Booth stole a horse and buggy. Eight individuals are tried with a variety of sentences resulting. Dr. Mudd receives life in prison at Dry Tortugas, an island prison off the coast of Florida. Here, the film follows his efforts to escape, his failure to do so and subsequent punishment, and his eventual release because of selfless service during a Yellow Fever outbreak.
It is impossible to watch The Prisoner of Shark Island today and not draw parallels to current events with the war on terrorism. When the prisoners are lead into the courtroom, they are all wearing hoods that are eerily similar to the hoods we see in pictures of Abu Ghraib. Dry Tortugas could stand in for Guantanamo. These are two of the starkest visual similarities, but, of course, one could view them as purely coincidental. However, Ford is working at something much deeper here, a threat to the American way of life that has plagued us since the very beginnings of our country, as the most recent episode of John Adams confirmed yet again. How do we define and maintain civil liberties during a time of war or in the event of terrorism?
Whether the dialogue in Ford’s film is completely faithful to historical events or not is completely irrelevant. However, it does provide a stinging critique of one particular response to this issue, one that our current political administration seems to favor. Rather than having the eight accused people stand a civil trial, a special jury of military leaders is convened. The head of the trial advises these military men: “Hardness is all that can save this country. Don’t let your hearts be troubled by technicalities of the law or any pedantic regard for the customary rules of evidence. Don’t be influenced by that obnoxious creation of the law–reasonable doubt.” As if this advice didn’t corrupt the trial enough, the prisoners are not allowed to speak in their own defense. From the start, the angry mob and the prison general conflate Dr. Mudd and John Wilkes Booth so that Dr. Mudd is not simply guilty of conspiracy but actually becomes, in their eyes, the murderer himself.
While one of the film’s intertitles claims that Dr. Mudd’s name has been cleared, an interesting commentary track by Andrew Slide reveals that Dr. Mudd’s family is still trying to exonerate him. Of course, we still imply his guilt whenever we use the phrase, “Your name is mud.”
The Prisoner of Shark Island reveals a complicated filmmaker in John Ford. This is a patriotic film to be sure, specifically because of its critique of an American injustice. In a recent NPR discussion on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, scholar Michael Eric Dyson outlined the difference between patriotism and nationalism. As opposed to the unblinking naivete of the latter, the former symbolizes a love of country embodied in a critique of its injustices and an on-going effort to embody the ideals that it espouses. Given this dichotomy, I would argue that Ford certainly was a patriotic filmmaker, at least in this film. Of course, though he took a progressive, prophetic stance on one political issue, the film is far from perfect, as his disturbing representations of African American characters evidences. Nevertheless, this shortcoming aside, The Prisoner of Shark Island is a wonderful film that will, (un)fortunately, remain relevant for some time to come.