Tuesday, February 14, 2006


This is the Hollywood version of the ordeal of Samuel Mudd, the doctor who unwittingly set the leg of the injured John Wilkes Booth and was found guilty of conspiracy in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. As in all historical films, the facts are played around with considerably in the service of entertainment, but this is a well-told tale. Warner Baxter is Mudd, presented here as a simple country doctor and slaveowner whose sympathies were with the Confederacy. The movie begins with an understated reenactment of Lincoln's murder followed by Booth's journey through pouring rain to Mudd's home where he asks for medical attention. After he peels off his boots, he tries to scratch his engraved name from the inside, but only partially succeeds. The next day, military police follow Booth's trail, find the boots, and arrest the doctor. A military court, the members of which have been instructed to ignore the legal principle of "reasonable doubt" in order to get guilty verdicts to avoid "the collapse of the Union," finds Mudd (and several others) guilty of conspiracy; most of the prisoners are executed by hanging, but Mudd is sentenced to a life of hard labor on a prison island in the Florida Keys. A sergeant on the island (John Carradine) takes particular delight in torturing this man he assumes had a direct hand in killing the president; back home, Mudd's wife (Gloria Stuart) tries every legal channel in attempts to free her husband. A daring escape attempt, in which Mudd is aided by a former slave of his (Ernest Whitman), is foiled and Mudd and Whitman are thrown into a deadly solitary cell, but when a yellow fever epidemic swamps the island and lays low prisoners and guards alike, Mudd is freed to help fight the disease. This eventually earns him the respect of all, even Carradine, and he is given a pardon and returns home to his loving wife.

In real life, Mudd spent four years on the island and was released after helping fight yellow fever, but he never regained his health or his livelihood. In the film, Mudd's innocence is never in doubt, but actually the case against him did have some merit, as he apparently lied to authorities about not knowing Booth--the two had met at least twice before the assassination, though Mudd insisted that he did not recognize Booth when he set his leg. Baxter is excellent, playing his part without the histrionics that must have been tempting. Standouts in the supporting cast include Harry Carey as the commandant of the island, Maurice Murphy as an orderly who helps Mudd during the epidemic, and Claude Gillingwater as Mudd's father-in-law, an inveterate Confederate (no poem intended). The prison island is referred to in the opening as an American Devil's Island, and indeed the 1939 B-movie DEVIL'S ISLAND with Boris Karloff (reviewed 6/15/05) stole its basic plot situation wholesale from this film, even though it is set in France and has nothing to do with the Civil War. Not reliable as a history lesson, perhaps, but a compelling movie. [FMC]

No comments: