Friday, 28 January 2011

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) - John Ford

I've never really given John Ford much of a chance. I always had him pegged as the guy that made all those westerns that I used to watch with my granddad Taylor. Sure Americans think he's the bee's knees, but they would wouldn't they? After all westerns are their past, their history (not mine), and for the most part (especially in the older westerns) that history is wildly distorted. Of course the injuns are always the bad guys, despite the fact that they're the poor fuckers who had their land stolen from under their feet. So anyway John Ford, I just presumed that even though everyone regards him as a genius film maker, they must all be wrong and I was right to ignore his films, since I saw a stack of them between the ages of four and ten.

Well okay I can hold my hands up now and say that of course everyone else is correct, the guy is a genius when it comes to telling a story, his framing is second to none and his films (the few I've seen as an adult) are worthy of the praise heaped on them. Oh and he doesn't just make westerns. When both Akira Kurosawa and Lindsay Anderson bang on about how essential Ford is, well it's best to reconsider what you originally thought, I suppose. So after seeing Young Mr. Lincoln and Stagecoach, and finding both to be totally different and unexpectedly faster than what I would have thought, I found myself thinking that I need to see as many Ford films as I can, and as soon as possible.

So that brings us to this, The Prisoner of Shark Island, supposedly one of Ford's personal favourites of his own films. Guess what? I loved it. Based on a true story, it's about doctor Samuel Mudd who unwittingly helped John Wilkes Booth (the naughty type that kicked off the American pastime for shooting their presidents, by offing Abe Lincoln). He fixed his broken leg and gave him directions across the border. Booth was shot before he was able stand trial (remind you of anyone else?), and so Americans hungry for blood rounded up eight people connected to Booth to stand trial instead. Mudd was one of those, a joke of a trial and life imprisonment on an island prison is what he received for his troubles. After a failed escape attempt, he was able to redeem himself by helping his fellow inmates and prison officers by working around the clock to save them from an outbreak of yellow fever. This earned him a pardon, and he returned home to his wife and child.

So considering that I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the subject matter, I'm amazed just how well Ford managed to drag me into the film. The whole film races by and is over before you know it, which isn't that odd when you consider how vast the story is, and that it's crammed into a ninety minute running time. Could this be one of the first films to use the old key in a bar of soap gag? God alone knows. That's the funny thing with a lot of old films, things that are total clichés now were probably brand spanking new back then. I wonder if people poured out of the cinema amazed by the idea of the smuggling a key into a prison via washing products? I doubt it, but it makes me smile to think they might have.

Kurosawa does something in his films that I'm certain he's lifted/borrowed from Ford. It's the idea of not showing a big event that a certain scene is building up to. In this film, we get the key, a conversation about how best to get off the island and over the shark infested moat (didn't I mention the sharks, oh well), and how there would be a ship to meet Mudd just outside the prison. What we don't see is the actual break out of the cell, instead we pick up the action with Mudd already running around the prison corridors. I don't know why but I love things like that, it's hard to pull it off since you run the risk of deflating expectations. When done well though it helps quicken the pace of the film and really throw the audience into the situation.

Another thing I've noticed with Ford is his unwillingness to show violence on screen. Lincoln's death isn't show, just his hands dropping the paper he was reading. Likewise when a group of people are hung at the start of the film, we see the hanging played out on the faces of the crowd that have come to witness it. One last thing is the way black characters are handled in this film. Being set in the deep south in the immediate times after the civil war there are obviously a lot of slaves. For a start they are played by coloured actors (rather than some blacked up whitey), the main thing Ford does though is treat them as well as he does any of the other characters in the film. So we get whole scenes with only slaves, and more importantly they receive close ups. Not something you'd see in many films from this period. All in all The Prisoner of Shark Island just made me more determined to get a few more Ford films under my belt before 2012 comes a-calling. Watch this space.

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