Pathfinder // 1980 // 145 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Gutierrez (Retired) // June 9th, 2004
We all know what they say about the road to Hell. It's even sadder when it's based upon a true story.
The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd instructs on one lifesaving fact: Never help a wounded man with a fake beard. Please note movies based on historical fact should be viewed with a grain of salt. Don't think any film or television show will give the insight that a book or an article in an encyclopedia offers. Although always biased, historical books will not try to dramatize.
Dr. Samuel Mudd (Dennis Weaver, McCloud) is a Maryland family man and surgeon whose altruistic nature lands him in prison.
Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, a pair of muddied and worn strangers comes across the good doctor needing medical assistance in treating a wounded leg. Dr. Mudd takes them into him home, as he and his wife notice the strangers reacting too nervously when questioned. News travels slowly when it travels by horse, so when a regiment of Union soldiers starts asking questions about the whereabouts of wounded presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, Mudd puts two and two together.
Booth and his cohort manage to get away, but not before wreaking further damage on the Mudd household. Dr. Mudd's first brutal nemesis, Edward Stanton (Richard Dysart, Mask), personally railroads Mudd in the courtroom. Dr. Mudd is found guilty of conspiracy and sentenced to life in the Fort Jefferson Penal Colony outside of Key West. General Thomas Ewing (Arthur Hill, Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Mudd's wife Frances (Susan Sullivan, Dharma and Greg) try in vain to keep Mudd out of prison. Once that fails, the pair endeavor to have Mudd released via Presidential pardon.
While in prison, Mudd experiences the worst months of his life. The prison's commandant (Michael Maguire, Tiger Claws III) chooses Mudd as the outlet for his hatred and swears to make Mudd's life Hell. He does.
Mudd attempts to escape end sadly and get him assigned to solitary confinement. During his stint in the hole, the island is hit by an epidemic of Yellow Fever. It's every soldier and prisoner for himself, many attempting to escape while others die. Remembering his Hippocratic oath, Mudd stays behind to care for the sick. Eventually, Mudd returns home to his family and is pardoned.
For a TV movie, The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd is impressive. The performances were strong and elevated the movie from a series of long diatribes about injustice and it made it a film about character and growth. Dennis Weaver's Mudd is strong and compassionate. I find it difficult not to care about Mudd, as he is constantly victimized and bewildered by his confinement and treatment. Most impressively, Weaver delivers the majority of his performance through his eyes. Since he is heavily bearded through the film, his disappointment, sorrow, pain and eventual relief is carried on his brow.
Who wouldn't want a wife like Susan Sullivan? As a character equal in strength and drive as Dr. Mudd, Frances simply won't give up. One look at Sullivan's soft and determined face as she delivers her lines, and it's not hard to believe that she would stop at nothing to free her husband. Played with a dark delight, Michael Maguire gave the Commandant a real nasty hate. It's not easy to portray such a one-note character without overdoing it, but Maguire manages to do so. When experiencing a fevered rage, it is blessedly honest and not used as an opportunity to chew the scene.
I liked that the story was well paced and did not often linger on any scene too long. It's a good sign when I know the outcome of a film and still find myself in suspense. It's a common story, a man a victim of circumstance and his own good intentions, but this is a compelling one -- perhaps even more so due to its roots of truth.
Additionally, for a TV movie this aged, the audio transfer was excellent. Not to say that I was bowled over by the audio mix, however I didn't notice any dropout or problems. The video transfer was equally adequate, save the problem addressed later in this review.
My main gripe is with the "Special Features" section. The packaging indicates that the special features include a "Biographies" selection -- only there isn't one. I'm not a big fan of the still gallery. If I wanted a still gallery, I would just hit the "Pause" button on the remote while viewing the film.
This is very dark film, heavy in blacks and minimal lighting. Very often I would see the picture pixelate and color shift and noticed some ongoing scratches. The daytime and Maryland scenes do not suffer this problem, but the prison corridors, midnight escape attempt and any night footage were heavily impaired.
As with any movie of based on true events, I'm skeptical of the amount of "truth" altered for dramatic license, but The Ordeal of Dr. Mudd is well crafted and smart. It didn't reinvent the cinematic wheel, but the performances are worth checking out.
I think Dr. Mudd has spent enough time in the clink. This man is free to go. Pathfinder Home Entertainment is guilty of filthy packaging lies and is sentenced to thirty years at the Jefferson Penal Colony.
Review content copyright © 2004 David Gutierrez; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Still Gallery