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 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 also does not know the man he is treating is Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd splints the broken leg and receives a banknote as payment, only later realizing that it is a $50 bill.

Mudd is soon afterward arrested for being an accessory in the assassination, is convicted, and is then sent to Arcadia, a prison on the Dry Tortugas that is referred to in the film as "America's own Devil's Island".

Mudd's wife hatches an escape plan using "Buck", the black prison guard who tends to Mudd. Mudd escapes his cell, hears Sgt. Rankin's instruction to kill him on sight, and gets to the prison's outer wall above the shark-infested moat before an alarm is sounded. Mudd then swims to a waiting boat where his wife and her father (Mr. Holt) help him. However, Sgt. Rankin boards the boat, recaptures Mudd and returns him to the prison, where he is confined to a windowless, underground cell along with "Buck".

The island has been in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic, with the official prison doctor having fallen ill with the same fever. The Commandant has few options and places Mudd in charge of addressing the outbreak. Now with the cooperation of the soldier guards, Mudd 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 Mudd also catches the fever. The soldiers sign a petition to have Mudd pardoned and he is ultimately released.


Warner Baxter and Gloria Stuart in The Prisoner of Shark Island

Critical response

A contemporary review by Frank Nugent in The New York Times reported that the film presents Mudd's story "with commendable directness," noting "Warner Baxter's entirely convincing portrayal of Dr. Mudd" but also claiming that the film "is scarcely more than a well-fabricated edition of the Dreyfus-Devil's Island series that has become part of the screen's tradition."[2] Variety reported that "Warner Baxter [...] turns in a capital performance as the titular prisoner of ‘America’s Devil’s Island’", and described the casting as "tiptop", with "John Carradine stand[ing] out as a new face among especially sinister heavies."[3] Writing in Turner Classic Movies, critic Jeremy Arnold described the film as a "highly entertaining, fast-moving film with endlessly fascinating subject matter," being "one of director John Ford's less-talked-about pictures" and noting that "John Carradine [...] is deliciously evil and nasty in one of the most memorable performances of his career [and] Warner Baxter as Mudd gives perhaps THE best performance of his own career."[4]


  1. ^ "Home".
  2. ^ Nugent, Frank (1936-02-13). "' The Prisoner of Shark Island,' at the Center -- 'Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk,' at the Astor". The New York Times. Retrieved 2023-03-08.
  3. ^ "The Prisoner of Shark Island". Variety. Variety Media LLC. 1935-12-31. Retrieved 2023-03-08.
  4. ^ Arnold, Jeremy. "The Prisoner of Shark Island". Turner Classic Movies. Turner Classic Movies, Inc. Retrieved 2023-03-08.

Further reading