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.
What to say about this pictorial, breath-taking call to arms that hasn’t already been said? Tom Joad’s penchant for brutal violence stands out more than anything else after this most recent viewing, and the evolution of his physicality, beginning with the meaningless drunken brawl/murder that gets him imprisoned, which transitions to his meaningful lethal blow in defense of Casey, seems to be a key point. The sudden violence first stems from Joad’s weakness to liquor, then his own realization about the injustices of unfair wages and labor tactics, a different kind of Kool Aid that produces just as fiery an outcome. As Joad escapes in the final scene, Ford shows his hero in extreme-long shot, a faceless shadow framed by an endless mountainside, a semi-religious icon of perseverance and morality striving forward to preach the gospel of leftist politics. Too bad he’s had to kill twice to find the lord. It’s an interesting dichotomy that complicates Joad’s role as a pure hero of the working man.
A pure and extraordinary performance by Henry Fonda, brilliantly portraying, both physically and mentally, one of America’s most important figures developing from mortal into icon. The material fits director John Ford’s myth-making process perfectly, favoring passionate moments of change over complex incarnations of conflict or doubt. One standout moment occurs when Lincoln throws a rock into the river he admires throughout, causing ripples which Ford uses to fade downstream, into a now icy mise-en-scene, showing a passage of time with astounding clarity. Young Mr. Lincoln has as straight and narrow a trajectory as it’s protagonist’s lanky frame, Ford filling every moment with lush B/W images dominated by Lincoln’s presence and evolving political aptitude. I’ve never seen a John Ford film obsessed with such a singular vision of character, pressing onward with a third person perspective, the viewer never knowing what Lincoln might say or do until after the film world has experienced it first. In turn, the audience marvels at the nature of the man, the myth, the legend, as he’s becoming. A great film, unique within the canon of one of America’s greatest filmmakers.
A fine throwback picture by any account, flushed with stirring dramatic moments of hardship and despair, but one which represents Ford’s greatest weakness as well. In How Green Was My Valley, as in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Arrowsmith, and Cheyenne Autumn, he mixes simplistic, broken down ideologies about faith, retribution, and comeuppance with large, picturesque visuals, ultimately overwhelming the fascinating characters being represented. This is more of a gripe than an actual complaint, since all of these films mentioned have fascinating aspects to cherish. How Green Was My Valley represents the best of this bunch, having the most success filtering individual conflicts through the above mentioned dynamic. It has a strange and hypnotic obsession with characters leaving, exiting from it’s main character and narrator Huw’s (a very young Roddy McDowall) life. Ford films these departures with exquisite shadows upon angled landscapes, often flanked by the billowing smoke of the coal mines which provides the labor for Huw’s Welsh family. As a boy becoming a man, Huw marks these moments fleetingly, but with a heartfelt sense of sadness which lingers throughout. The entire vision is rightfully melodramatic and nostalgic , a boy’s remembrance of memories both good and bad, but always important to his definition of family and honor.
John Ford’s Arrowsmith transplants his famous western mythology into the form of a modern day American doctor (Ronald Coleman) trying to cure the bubonic plague in the British West Indies. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith comes from frontier stock. Ford’s opening montage shows his family lineage beginning with his stubborn great grandmother leading a wagon train across the plains. He then cuts to a young Arrowsmith studying Gray’s Anatomy, lectured by his father to become a worthy successor to his trail blazing relatives. These opening moments resonate throughout Arrowsmith’s long and tumultuous journey, which include meeting and marrying his wife Leora (Helen Hayes), his time spent at famous research institutes, and experiences abroad attempting to thwart the spread of plague. Ford shows Arrowsmith’s sometimes reckless abandon as both a desired need to follow in the footsteps of one’s ancestors and a ego driven quest to help those in need. The consequences are sharp, Ford supplanting Indians and outlaws for unseen, fateful brushes with disease. For this reason, Arrowsmith is a fascinating look at the flip-side of the Ford cannon, a film obsessed with the thought of failure over any gung-ho attempts at salvation. Also, the film has the best performance by a female actor in any of the John Ford films I’ve seen. Hayes’ Leora is both the rock and the fragile center of Arrowsmith’s life, a lasting impression of true love which gets lost in the shuffle of Arrowsmith’s obsessions. This is a great tragedy and Ford treats it as such. Expressionistic lighting haunts the scenes abroad and low angles show the horror of mass plague. Arrowsmith does a lot of good for many people, but he forgets the importance of commitment and loyalty in the process. In turn, he pays the ultimate price.