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The Prisoner of Shark Island
film poster by Joseph A. Maturo
Directed byJohn Ford
Written byNunnally Johnson
Produced byNunnally Johnson
Darryl F. Zanuck
StarringWarner Baxter
Gloria Stuart
Frank McGlynn
Francis McDonald
CinematographyBert Glennon
Edited byJack Murray
Music byR.H. Bassett
Hugo Friedhofer
Twentieth Century Fox
Distributed byTwentieth Century Fox
Release date
  • February 28, 1936 (1936-02-28)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Prisoner of Shark Island is a 1936 American drama film loosely based on the life of Maryland physician Samuel Mudd, who treated the injured presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth and later spent time in prison after his controversial conviction for being one of Booth's accomplices. The film was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, was directed by John Ford and starred Warner Baxter and Gloria Stuart.

Twentieth Century Pictures, before it merged with Fox, purchased the rights to the book The Life of Dr. Mudd by Nettie Mudd Monroe, the doctor's daughter. The film's credits, however, make no reference to Monroe or her book. Modern sources state that Darryl F. Zanuck, Twentieth Century's vice-president in charge of production, got the idea to make the film after he read an article in Time magazine about the prison camp for political prisoners on the Dry Tortugas island.[1]


A few short hours after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (Frank McGlynn Sr.), Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter) gives treatment to a man with a broken leg who shows up at his door. Mudd does not know that the president has been assassinated and the man who he is treating is John Wilkes Booth. Mudd is there with his young wife and treats the man despite it being 5am. Booth does not give his name and is accompanied by another man. Mudd splints the leg and they press a banknote into his hand. Only when they leave does Mudd realise that it is a $50 bill.

Mudd is arrested for being an accessory in the assassination and is sent to Arcadia: a prison on the Dry Tortugas, described as in the West Indies and referred to in the film as "America's own Devil's Island".

His wife hatches an escape plan using "Buck", the black prison guard who tends to Dr Mudd. Although Mudd gets out of his cell he hears Sgt Rankin's instruction to kill him on sight. Mudd gets to the outer wall above the shark-infested moat before an alarm is sounded. He gets to the outer waters and swims to a waiting boat where his wife and her father (Mr Holt) help him. However Sgt Rankin boards the ship and he is recaptured. He is thrown into a windowless underground cell.

The island has been in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic and the official prison doctor, Dr MacIntyre, has fallen ill with the same fever. The Commandant has few options and places Dr. Mudd in charge of addressing the outbreak. Now with the cooperation of the soldier guards, he introduces ventilation into the hospital ward (mainly by smashing the windows). The yellow fever epidemic subsides, and Mudd ironically saves the life of Sgt rankin, but not before Dr Mudd also catches the fever. The soldiers sign a petition to have Mudd pardoned and he is released.

In the end he returns home with Buck and both their wives are waiting.


Warner Baxter and Gloria Stuart in The Prisoner of Shark Island
Warner Baxter and Gloria Stuart in The Prisoner of Shark Island


  1. ^ "Home".

Further reading