The Prisoner of Shark Island


I recently watched an old VHS copy of John Ford’s 1936 film The Prisoner of Shark Island.  It details the travails of Doctor Samuel Mudd.  It’s based on a true story.  In the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, he treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. 

For his troubles, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Dry Tortuga’s Islands.  It didn’t help him any that he had met Booth before and then lied about it.  He was a slaveholder.  Still, it seems that most of the evidence against him was circumstantial.

In the end, they let him go.  He was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869.  Historians argue about Mudd’s guilt or innocence.  Most believe that he was not part of the plot. 

Doctor Samuel Mudd

Doctor Samuel Mudd

The scenes of his trial (in John Ford’s film) made it appear that he wasn’t given a fair trial.  It all gave me an eerie feeling of deja vu: no real “due process” given (angry, in the aftermath of a tragedy).  Then, sentenced to life in a prison in an island off of the Florida coast. 

Then from Melbourne, Australia I found a good review of The Prisoner of Shark Island by Peter Hourigan.  He actually commented on this: 

“Issues of expediency over justice are also frighteningly contemporary. As he convenes the military tribunal in the film, the Secretary instructs them, ‘The object of this tribunal is not to determine the guilt or innocence of a handful of rebels but to save this country from further bloodshed.’ Is this also the rational behind the Bush administration’s response to the events of 11 September? Is it their rationale (rationalisation) for Guantanamo Bay? It is a tribute to Ford’s direction that these thoughts can still arise from his film. It may have been conceived as a dramatic Hollywood drama, it may have taken only four months from its original conception to release, it may have some dramatic and acting weaknesses, but it is still alive and relevant.”

I wonder if others have?   I’m sure they will.  This movie has an eerie resonance in these times of out-posted incarcerations and secret torture sessions held in various “friendly countries.”

Peter Hourigan’s complete review:

homepage of Senses of Cinema:

More information on Doctor Mudd:


There are other movies which I view differently due to recent events.  One other example is the 1967 cult film The President’s Analyst.  The “telephone company” is the ultimate bad guy.  All Americans phones are tapped.  Paranoia reigns.

That brings to mind the recent N.S.A. eavesdropping controversy.  Which American citizens was the government spying on?  Was it just suspected terrorist?   Or was it also suspected protesters or malcontents?

The President’s Analyst:


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