11 February 2011
I didn't know until just now that this was based on the true story of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, but of course it is. It's too grand and bizarre and interesting a story to be otherwise. I was about to suggest that it might also explain some of the stranger directions the story goes in, most notably the attempted-but-thwarted escape sequence, but according to Wikipedia, that's all made up, it turns out. Still, this is a pretty exciting film, and damn impressive for 1936 in terms of action and drama.
I made a point to watch this when reading Samuel Fuller talk about Shock Corridor and being visited by Ford and calling him "the man who made the great Prisoner of Shark Island," and I can definitely see how the claustrophobia and madness inherent to the fort made an impression on Fuller's film years later.
The structure is a little odd, taking forty-plus minutes to get the prisoner onto shark island and all, and then spending the next thirty or so with his wife's scheme to storm the castle and bring her man back to Key Largo for a new trial -- which works until their ship is boarded (and her father murdered, no less). Considering this was Dr. Mudd's story primarily, I'm surprised this whole sequence occurs. I mean, I'm glad Mrs. Mudd wasn't portrayed as sitting at home wringing her hands and waiting for a miracle, but other than showing how hard it is to escape, it seemed to be a massive, needlessly complicated dead-end that had nothing to do with the final act's action. Then again, I guess you can't really put an innocent dude in a prison called Shark Island and not have a long daring escape sequence.
But aside from the dead-ends and long side-stories, I was pretty impressed. Dr. Mudd looks haunting with his skinny body, wild hair, and shaggy beard, but commanding with his half-buttoned dress shirt and funny little mustache. A lot of scene-stealingly great character actors (including John Carradine among them) populate the sidelines throughout, which helps the world feel lived-in and interesting.
My only comment left is the music. The "score" was primarily made up of variations on two songs. "Dixie" I understand, though it didn't always work. On the other hand, the love-theme and tragic/sad song of choice throughout was "O Tannenbaum" (or "Oh Christmas Tree," if you prefer), and frankly, that never worked. Why does Christmas music play as he is escorted to prison? Why does Christmas music play as his wife mourns her broken home? Am I wrong and maybe "O Tannenbaum" has non-Christmas connotations as well? (Wikipedia doesn't mention any.) It's just distracting and confusing. But other than that, and some gee-golly-yes-massa overacting by the "Negroes" (which was at least era-appropriate, I admit, but still felt overperformed to me), I was really impressed. Definitely lives up to the legend Samuel Fuller bestowed on it for me.