Documentary examines ‘The Castle,’ legendary Navy prison
By D. Allan Kerr
It’s one of the most prominent features of the Seacoast landscape, but few living have ever seen it up close, much less entered inside.
The former Naval prison at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was appropriately dubbed “The Castle” in its heyday, and the moniker holds fast today – even 40 years after the prison closed its doors.
On Dec. 17, the Castle will be brought to life again at Rice Public Library in Kittery, through a free event featuring a video presentation by filmmaker Neil Novello.
The Castle has for decades been a source of local myth and urban legend. Novello’s presentation will enlighten viewers to the factual history of this landmark institution.
The event will include film footage from inside the prison not seen by the public for more than 90 years, from a 1917 silent movie produced by the only civilian commander of the prison, Thomas Mott Osborne.
Novello also provides rarely seen video filmed in 1945 of captured German U-Boat crews escorted to the naval prison at the end of the World War II. Fifteen U-boats were brought to the shipyard after Germany’s surrender, according to the filmmaker.
Novello’s presentation will cover eras including World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War. National archival photos of the building of the prison in 1904 will also be included, as will interviews with prisoners filmed during the Vietnam era as part of a U.S. Navy documentary about the facility.
“As far as I know, I’m the only filmmaker to make any documentaries about the history of the Naval prison outside of the Navy,” Novello said.
Lording over the Piscataqua River for several decades now, the long-abandoned prison has inspired some tall tales over the years. Perhaps most famous is the legend of a young inmate named Walt Disney, who supposedly served time at the facility and found there his inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle years later. Tour boat captains have frequently repeated this story during river cruises.
That story, though fascinating, is not true. Disney never served time at the prison, and the design for Cinderella’s Castle was inspired by 15th-century German castles, according to Novello.
However, it is a fact that Navy sailor Humphrey Bogart was escorting a prisoner to the Castle when the convict smashed his handcuffs into Bogart’s mouth during an escape attempt. The future movie icon’s famous scar and lisp reportedly resulted from the incident.
And in the classic 1973 film “The Last Detail,” Jack Nicholson portrays one of the Navy sailors escorting Randy Quaid to the prison for an eight-year sentence. However, none of the filming took place here.
The prison’s construction was completed in 1908, and at the time it was the largest poured concrete building in the world. But even before that, more than 1,600 enemy prisoners from the Spanish-American War were held at the site toward the end of the 19th century.
For nearly seven decades, the Castle housed Navy sailors and Marines sentenced for a wide range of offenses, reaching a peak of more than 3,000 during World War II.
A sneak preview of the production assures it’s quite a kick seeing a place that most people have only known as a monolithic ghost of a building teeming with life again. The footage includes interviews with several individuals who worked at the Castle before it finally closed its doors for good back in 1974.
Novello has provided a wide range of productions over the past quarter-century, specializing in documentaries. He produces both family biographies and Internet business videos. Previews of his documentaries can be found on his production company’s website at www.iguanadivision.com.
Copies of Novello’s DVD will be on sale at the Wednesday, Dec. 17 event, which starts at 6 p.m. Those interested in attending should register at Rice Public Library or through the library’s Web site, www.rice.lib.me.us.
D. Allan Kerr is the author of “Silent Strength,” the story of the crewmen lost aboard the USS Thresher in history’s worst submarine disaster based upon a series of articles that ran in the Portsmouth Herald in advance of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Thresher disaster. He is also a member of Rice Public Library’s board of directors.