A Fordian examination of American myth-making, The Prisoner of Shark Island is an emotional, expressionistic, feverishly atmospheric work. In it, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the man who unwittingly treated John Wilkes Booth after Lincoln’s assassination, is imprisoned on an island as an alleged conspirator.
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Ah, Ford. For the benefit of a country that still hasn't recovered from the Civil War, Prisoner at first promises a dignified take on nuanced human lives in the chaos of history—a dignity that is swiftly crushed when it hard-sells the idea that black slaves and white masters were doing fine before those pesky Yanks came along. Neo-Confederate nostalgia wins the day, and the claptrap of the final act writes itself.
Again "Dixie" and the difficult representation of the South and North, between archetypes and clichés relatively to the blacks. But again the immense narrative mastery and the unsurpassed approach to human dignity, which extends well beyond the stereotypes and resize them. Ford was one of the greatest narrative filmmakers and the scenes during the yellow fever epidemic are a clear example of it.
I have many doubts regarding the morals of this film... Negroes are treated as animals and the unionists as sado-masochist beasts that corrupt the law. Southerners, instead, are associated with fine western values: family, religion, work ethics, respect for the law... Too much bullshit for me, honestly.