Racially questionable double feature:
John Ford’s PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND
Karl Armstrong’s NINJA VENGEANCE
(bear with me here)
After my recent Lincoln assassination phase (which mostly just consisted of reading Manhunt by James L. Swanson) I found out about this PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND movie. It’s about Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated the leg John Wilkes Booth broke by jumping out of the balcony after shooting Lincoln (fuckin ham). Mudd was convicted as part of the conspiracy but instead of being hung he was sent to Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas. He tried to escape once, but failed, and had to stay in a dungeon for a while. But when a brutal yellow fever outbreak killed the prison doctor, Mudd agreed to take over and won the approval of 300 soldiers in the fort, who signed a petition for him to be pardoned. Sure enough he was later pardoned by Andrew Johnson.
The movie tells all those aspects of the story, but laces them so full of bullshit I really could not enjoy this movie. It should be called LIAR OF HORSE SHIT ISLAND. The main premise of the movie is that Mudd was just a random doctor following the Hippocratic oath when an injured stranger showed up at his door. Then he was railroaded by mean, crazy Northerners. The movie starts out by saying that Mudd’s name has since been cleared, but unfortunately after the movie was made his name was uncleared. He may not have known about the assassination but he did know Booth and in fact was waiting to help out in a conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln. That’s why he lied and pretended he didn’t know who Booth was. In the movie he really doesn’t know him personally or recognize him, and even makes small talk about how much he likes Lincoln.
Of course, the reason the real Mudd hated Lincoln is because he liked slavery. He was a racist. In the movie he’s a slave owner, but a real nice SONG OF THE SOUTH style slave owner. His slaves take his side when a mean, crazy anti-slavery zealot comes on their property. One of the slaves likes Dr. Mudd so much he helps try to bust him out of prison. None of the actors who play the slaves are listed in the end credits, because it was 1936.
In the prison John Carradine plays a mean, crazy Yankee soldier who beats the shit out of Mudd. Representing Southerners there is one character that is equally or maybe even more cartoonish, Mudd’s Confederate veteran father-in-law. He’s really over-the-top but it’s played for laughs like it’s kind of cute and lovable. He also explains that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery and in fact was about state’s rights. (You know, rights to do things, not slavery necessarily, but, you know… whatever, let’s not talk specifics, it’s just about state’s rights is all.) The music swells in admiration of the crazy old man’s bravery when he commands a warship to try to rescue his innocent son-in-law.
In reality this most likely did not happen, because his son-in-law was not innocent and because he himself was dead.
The thing is, this really is an interesting story. Despite Mudd being a racist liar and everything he really did his doctor thing in that fort so in a sense he became a hero. In fact the real version is kind of more dramatic than the fake version because of that contradiction. The movie also points out that the government abandoned our system of justice to deal with the conspirators. They suspended habeas corpus, had a military tribunal instead of a jury, they even executed a woman for the first time in American history. Pretty cold-blooded. It’s an important thing to think about. I don’t disagree with what they did all that much but I got a problem with how they did it when I think about it in modern terms.
Obviously I agree with the message that we need to keep our system of justice in place even (especially) in the face of overwhelming tragedy, otherwise innocent people can get hurt. It’s a message that’s more relevant now than when the movie was made. But the movie stacks the deck as much as the military tribunal did, pretending Mudd was just an unlucky innocent, making everybody involved make hammy, evil or unfair speeches and then Mudd gives an eloquent plea for justice and they strike it from the record.
I’m sure some film historians can set aside history and modern values to enjoy what I’m sure is a well made fairy tale, but it was too much for me. I watched the whole thing, but I couldn’t get into it. Afterwards I needed an antidote, and luckily (I thought) I had the perfect one: NINJA VENGEANCE.
Okay, you may think that sounds like a weird choice, but you’ll change your mind when you see this fuckin cover:
What more needs to be said? I was at the video store and I saw this. I wasn’t really looking for a crappy 1990 ninja movie on VHS. But it doesn’t matter what you’re looking for, when you come across a concept so perfect and so “why the fuck didn’t anybody do this before?” as ninjas vs. Klansmen, you really don’t have a choice but to rent it. You don’t even have to read the back of the box. But you do have to read the tagline, which in case you can’t read it there is:
You can’t fight the evil forces of power without the power of force.
Word. True dat. You took the words right out of my mouth.
Let’s take a moment to think about this ninjas vs. Klansmen concept. I mean when you think about it, they have alot in common. Both cover themselves in cloth covering everything but their eyes and maybe hands. Both are mean bastards who kill people. Both like to set things on fire. Both base their lives on outmoded ideas that the rest of society has long since moved past.
But in other ways they are perfect opposites. Klansmen wear white, ninjas wear black. Klansmen have pointy hoods, ninjas have unpointy hoods. I’m not sure if ninjas ride horses or not, I’m gonna say they don’t, which is the opposite of riding a horse, which is what the Klan do. Ninjas are highly trained masters of martial arts and multiple forms of weaponry and stealth, Klansmen are a bunch of semi-retarded yahoos with shotguns. It’s no wonder they don’t get along. Plus you gotta figure a ninja is probaly gonna be Asian, the Klan is gonna be against them due to bigotry. Also the Klan are so dumb they might be going after ninjas for wearing black, the color of the race they hate the most. Even the word “ninja” sounds kind of similar to a racial slur the Klan like to use. So this is the best idea since SNAKES ON A PLANE!
But similarly underwhelming. Tragically there is not alot of ninja-on-Klan violence in this movie. Those two people you see on the cover I’m pretty sure are not the same people in the movie. The ninja definitely is not in the movie, because the only time you see a ninja costume is when the dude is unpacking his suitcase. He never puts it on! What the fuck is going on here? Didn’t these filmatists ever see NINJA? You at least gotta put it on at the end when you go to war.
It does start out with some of that clueless home-made charm you get when first timer independents outside of Hollywood try to make a movie. The dialogue and the delivery of said dialogue are endearingly terrible. There’s lots of ridiculous ON DEADLY GROUND style looped dialogue. (“Remember that game where you got the winning touchdown?” “That wasn’t the only game I won that night!”) The situations and behaviors are humorously ludicrous. The ninjitsu-practicing hero (a white guy, of course) is passing through town on his way to a ninja conference when his motorcycle breaks down, DOC HOLLYWOOD or COOL AS ICE style. His motorcycle, I am happy to say, is a Kawasaki Ninja, and yes there is a long close-up of the logo to make sure you know this.
I’m not sure how good this guy Craig Boyett is at ninjitsu. He does seem to know a few moves. But somebody must’ve decided he was best at somersaults, because he’s always doing fucking somersaults. Whenever someone comes at him, or surprises him, or even when he almost bumps into somebody on the street, his response is to do a somersault.
He never uses a sword like on the cover. He practices nunchakas in the park but never uses them on anybody. He has throwing stars but they’re only thrown dismissively by racist cops. I don’t think he owns a blow gun. They show his suitcase full of weapons more than once, that is proper action movie grammar, but then to never use them is improper, and should probaly be illegal. It at least demands vengeance.
Speaking of which, there’s very little vengeance in the movie. He spends most of the movie running through the woods hiding. He gets in a few scuffles in self defense and then repeatedly whines about how he’s supposed to avoid violence. To be fair there is a part where a Klansman does karate, that’s pretty funny. And a Klansman catches on fire. But the only real ninja shit this guy does besides the somersaults is one smoke bomb and a sort of clever scene where he picks the lock on his jail cell and you only see it on a security monitor over the heads of the female lead and racist lead having a conversation.
The female lead is kind of cute and shows her boobs. Her best friend has just been murdered in a hate crime by racists including her own dad, but she likes this white ninja so they fuck in the woods. You keep expecting Jason Voorhees to show up, but I guess that would only end up being another wasted opportunity when the ninja and Jason don’t end up fighting.
One surprise is that the opening credits are negative images of ninjas sparring and I thought “Hey, that looks like that white guy from that ninja book I got at the used book store.” Sure enough the lead character’s mentor (shown in flashback) is Stephen K. Hayes, author of Ninja: Spirit of the Shadow Warrior and I’m sure many other books. Our hero has some ninja instructional book in his suitcase, I’m not sure how good that one is but I wish he had Spirit of the Shadow Warrior because it has some pretty good advice in there that would’ve helped him be more badass. For example there is one action movie style scenario given where “a couple of obnoxious tough guys” get in your face at a roadside diner. Some of the options for how to respond include:
“Water – You joke around with them and make laughing wisecracks as though you were one of their buddies… ask them about their cars or motorcycles. You sound naively sincere and you seem to be convinced that they will not really hurt you. You laugh it off when they make direct reference to injuring you. You suddenly tell them you will be right back and take off for the restroom. When they amble in to find you, you surprise attack with a trash can bettering ram to the face…”
“Fire – When it is obvious that they are about to make their move, you dramatically lift the pepper shaker to a position about two feet above the table top. You stare them in the eye and then shift your vision to the raised pepper shaker, taking their eyes with you. With their attention on your hands, you slowly and deliberately remove the shaker cap. While they are watching your show, you inconspicuously raise one foot beneath the table and position the heel in front of the crotch of the man across from you. With the cap off the pepper shaker, you suddenly roar with an explosive shout and fling the pepper into the second man’s face, and immediately shove the heel of your poised foot into the crotch of the thug across from you. You dump the table over on them both, while kicking and beating them into submission. You disappear before any shocked witnesses can react or call the police.”
Of course, this guy in the movie might try the lame Wind method:
“You begin acting crazier than they are. You twitch around and make incoherent references to keeping a low profile for awhile so the police will not find you. You giggle a lot… you go into some sort of fit or seizure…”
Fuck that shit. I guess at least he doesn’t do that. But he would probaly choose the Earth method which is basically to stay cool and calm them down and hopefully they won’t want to fight anymore. A good thing to do in real life but not in a ninja movie. Especially when you’re not even wearing a ninja costume! Where is the ninja in this ninja movie, I ask?
So it doesn’t deliver as a ninja movie, but the other sad thing is it doesn’t even have that broad anti-racist spirit I needed to counteract the pro, uh, states rights spirit of SHARK ISLAND. Because for a so-called ninja getting so-called vengeance on some asshole bigots who murdered an innocent kid there sure is a weird lack of righteous indignation. At the beginning of the movie the white ninja is in a diner and witnesses a group of African-Americans getting bullied and then forced to leave by a group of racists, one of them a cop. Not only does he not say or do anything about it, when he tries to leave and his motorcycle doesn’t start he doesn’t hesitate to accept help from the racist cop. Later he’s coming into the motorcycle shop and has to do a somersault to dodge the young black man being physically thrown out the door. He still doesn’t seem bothered by this and cluelessly says to the girl, “Your friend seemed pretty upset.” It’s not until he sees a circle of bigots in hoods beating the guy to death that he finally seems offended by all this.
And in true SHARK ISLAND fashion the girl’s dad is treated way too sympathetically by the movie. At the end he looks at a picture of his deceased wife and has a change of heart and he and his daughter get along again. He tries to humbly play down his heroism by saying that “it’s getting out of hand, somebody has to stop it.” When it was just a guy being murdered that was one thing, but lately with all this chasing it’s getting out of hand. If I’m not mistaken this guy participated in beating his daughter’s friend to death because he was black! With a sheet on his head! And we’re supposed to be touched that he makes up with his daughter. Let bygones be bygones. Earth response.
I mean, I understand things are different in the south, but this isn’t Jim Crow era, or even the ’60s. This is fucking 1990! Shit, Billy Jack is a pacifist too, he was interfering with these types of incidents almost 20 years earlier. So this guy is already hard to sympathize with before you know he’s a poor excuse for a ninja.
Unlike SHARK ISLAND, the black actors do get listed on the credits. Of course, most of them are just in a list under the word “BLACKS.”
So, damn, I guess I struck out with that double feature there. Of the two I would say PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND has the better production values and acting, NINJA VENGEANCE has more unintentional laughs. So if you have to decide between the two, I don’t know, maybe go with NINJA VENGEANCE. Or maybe just look at the cover.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.