What to say about John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island? After being dragged into a military drumhead trial without benefit of defense of any kind, a shackled and hooded man is accused of conspiring to commit terrorism and quickly found guilty–the country, you see is at war–being then sent to prison indefinitely on a small piece army land in the Gulf of Mexico. Sound familiar?
It’s not Gitmo, but “Shark Island,” the piece of land where Dr. Mudd, the man who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg, was condemned to live out his life in prison. But although he was a southerner who fought for the confederacy, Mudd was a kind of patriot too, and it is only after praising Abraham Lincoln, “the one man who can save us,” that he accidentally treats Lincolns murderer without knowing it. An overzealous martial prosecutor gets him sent up, and we’re suddenly in a movie about a prison break, where the United States has become the bad guy, albeit inadvertently, out of excess zeal and grief for its captain, oh captain.
In the movie, the prison break is almost successful, but at the last minute he is caught again. This is how it has to be. Mudd cannot merely escape, you see, because the problem the movie has set up is stickier than that. The problem is not simply that he has been wronged (such that it could be solved by his escape from the wrong); the problem is that it is the USA which has wronged him. And that, it seems, requires a wholly different solution. Thomas Jefferson once suggested that the real problem of slavery was that whites would never be able to treat blacks as equals (nor blacks forgive whites): having wronged their slaves by enslaving them, no expiation would ever be sufficient, or offered. Living side by side was, for him, unthinkable on the basis of this belief, and he became an early proponent of the movement to colonize freed slaves back to Africa. In the movie, too, the problem of Mudd is that simply escaping leaves the crime done to him unpunished, and this isn’t how justice works: someone has to pay for what’s been done, and just as slaves must pay for the crimes done to them, so too should it be Mudd that expiates the sins of his persecutors.
Jefferson was living in a fantasy world, and he didn’t live to see the national conflagration that the refusals of people like him to consider racial harmony a real possibility would make necessary. But John Ford’s fantasy world had the benefit of that history, and so he spins something out of it that Jefferson never dreamed of: the re-integration of the southerner into the union, on the basis of his particular skill as southerner, and consequent on his redemption by fire. The other reason why Mudd cannot escape, you see, is that a post-civil war southerner can only be so innocent; he may not have shot Lincoln, but (like Muslims who aren’t necessarily actually terrorists) , that identity already always incriminates him, in a way which supercedes trivialities like actual guilt or innocence. Just as Muslims are terrorists until proven innocent; Mudd is a treasonous rebel until he proves otherwise.
So we are treated to a warped replay of major tropes of reconstruction and the civil war itself, the climax of which being the moment when Mudd orders a black soldier to fire a cannon on a Navy vessel in the harbor. Having been freed as the only doctor on the island during a yellow fever epidemic, Mudd is (in a literal sense) forcing the ship to pull in with its precious cargo of medicine, but the figurative sense is much more important: he is both re-enacting and undoing the civil war itself (with, as early 20th century Kluxers liked to imagine it, the African-Amreican being the catalyst culprit). A lot is going on there, of course, and I’m not going to try to tease out all the ways the scene is over-determined; the key point for me is simply dthat a southerner like Mudd has something to offer to the forces of law and order that even his northern jailors do not, redemptive quality that brings him back into the American fold: the negro respects him.
This is the movie’s repellant message, a point which gets hammered home with all the eloquent subtlety of a lynch mob. Early in the film, a radical reconstructionist tries to convince Mudd’s former slaves that they are free, but after a single urbane word from their urbane master, they run him out of town. They don’t want any such rabble-rousers, you see. And in the climactic scenes, not once but twice, Mudd is the only white man on Devil’s Island who can make the African-American soldiers do their work, both times by threatening their extra-legal murder, and both times saving the island from fever. In this way he saves Fort Jefferson, and comes to deserve the praise that he is given at the movies opening, a hyperbolic canonization as “one of America’s greatest heroes,” that seems strangely misplaced for most of the movie. A good man, perhaps, and unfairly persecuted, perhaps, but America’s greatest hero? But by the end of the movie, we understand why. It isn’t just Fort Jefferson he saved, but Jefferson’s white republic.
This is, I’ll say again, an artful and repellant film. What Amy Kaplan says about Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in The Anarchy of Empire is much more true here, only with a dogged and serious attention to the subject of white supremacy that Roosevelt couldn’t himself match. The moment when Roosevelt orders his “smoked yankees,” as the Cubans called African-American soldiers, back into the fighting, on pain of their death, is only a single scene, and although that scene brings to culmination TR’s obsession with his confederate lineage (and Anglo-Saxonism in general), TR lacks the stomach to really embrace that kind of political theater. Ford has no such limitation.
The strange resonance the film retains makes it stay with me; I’ve kept it for weeks now, but lacked the desire to actually watch it again, even to double check quotes. The narratives it trafficks in, as rooted in the civil war as they are, remain startlingly cogent and topical. The story of the United States being forced to do un-American things by un-American people is not out of fashion, nor is the idea that these non-Americans can only undo their criminal foreignness and expiating our guilt through their own suffering. But I’ve find I’ve lost the stomach to write about it, for the moment at least. So I’m netflixing it back.