Directed By: William Clemens
Starring: Boris Karloff, Nedda Harrigan, James Stephenson
Tag line: "A Drama of Inhuman Cruelty!"
Trivia: This movie brought massive protests from the French government for its depiction of that country's penal system
Dr. Charles Gaudet (Boris Karloff), a noted brain surgeon, is arrested for trying to help a political prisoner who was shot while escaping. Convicted of treason for his actions, Dr. Gaudet is sentenced to 10 years hard labor on Devil’s Island, a penal colony that’s home to some of the worst criminals in France. But as Gaudet soon discovers, the inmates themselves are being mistreated by the guards, who are acting on the orders of the sadistic commandant, Col. Armand Lucien (James Stephenson). When he tries to speak out against these injustices, Gaudet is labeled a troublemaker, and not even saving the commandant’s daughter (Rolla Gourvitch), who was badly injured in a fall, can keep the good doctor out of solitary confinement. Fed up with the horrible conditions, Gaudet, aided by the commandant’s sympathetic wife (Nedda Harrigan), plans an elaborate escape, realizing full well that, if he’s caught, it means a trip to the guillotine.
Released by Warner Brothers in 1939, Devil’s Island, which shines a light on the mistreatment of prisoners at France’s famed Devil’s Island, fell right in line with the other “socially conscious” films the studio was putting out around that time (the best being 1932’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which actually led to prison reform in the south). And even though Warners delayed the release of the movie so as not to anger the French (it hit theaters a year after the government stopped sending new prisoners to the penal colony), Devil’s Island still manages to get its point across by way of some well-realized scenes (the trouble begins when an inmate named Andre, played by John Harmon, is assigned to the timber cutting unit, despite the fact he’s suffering from tuberculosis. When the poor guy drops dead, a riot ensues, and as a result, Dr. Gaudet and a few others are put in solitary while the ringleader is sent to the guillotine).
In addition to its hard-hitting sequences, Devil’s Island features yet another fine performance by Boris Karloff, who, along with playing a sympathetic character (which was the actor’s specialty), displays an inner strength that causes his Dr. Gaudet to speak his mind in any situation (realizing Andre’s condition was life-threatening, Gaudet tries to warn the prison’s doctor, played by Edward Keane, that the hard labor could kill him. And, of course, he was right).
The movie does pull its punches towards the end, which ultimately weakens its message (the filmmakers imply that the horrors of Devil’s Island were the fault of a few rogue individuals, essentially letting the French government off the hook), but while it may fall a bit short as social commentary, Karloff himself makes Devil’s Island worth your time.