John Ford has a knack for illuminating major turning points in American History by focusing on the fringe events surrounding these climactic situations and the bit players often lost between the lines of text book mythology. The Prisoner of Shark Island highlights the story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, a compassionate country physician who unknowingly treats the injured John Wilkes Booth as he flees the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Mudd, convicted of aiding and abetting Booth by a strict Military court, is sent to the prison island of Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida, a dank and Noirsh locale surrounded by a moat of sharks.
What’s most interesting about Mudd’s situation is how badly he’s treated by vengeful Lincoln enthusiasts, personified by the lead guard of the prison. These tense scenes resonate a collective social angst in response to one of our first national tragedies, giving the film a viable complexity and sense of urgency. But the scope of the film becomes problematic as Ford relies more on one-dimensional historical events to redeem Mudd’s name in the public forum (the Yellow Fever outbreak). The trajectory feels unearned, already written, as if the flexibility of historiography is a moot point. But this is Ford at his most concise, if not his most simplistic. Thankfully, unlike other Ford biopics of the era (Arrowsmith), The Prisoner of Shark Island never becomes bloated or squanders its momentum, keeping us invested in the lead character damned by national anger, then resurrected by human compassion.