Great Escapes: Great Prison Movies
There’s a similar paradox when it comes to prison movies. Nobody wants to get locked up. But we love watching movies about people who are. It’s a very peculiar brand of escapism.
On the face of it, a gaol is hardly the ideal setting for a movie – I mean, we want movement, right? And beautiful girls… And action… None of these things are synonymous with life behind bars. I remember talking to Sean Penn shortly after he spent 40-odd days incarcerated after a dispute with a paparazzo. “I can tell you all you need to know about prison in one word,” he said. “Boredom.”
Most prison films pay lip service to tedium: we might get five minutes of routine if we’re lucky. Filmmakers prefer to let us fill in the blanks for ourselves. Even so, there is something a little masochistic about a prison movie.
Here’s the deal though: the constriction and concentration of the prison flick pays us back in intensity. Coop up several hundred hard men in a confined space for months and years on end, deprive them of their freedom, their wives and girlfriends, their kids and loved ones, you’re got a recipe for serious aggravation – either that, or a great movie about ornithology (see Burt Lancaster in The Birdman Of Alcatraz).
It’s another conundrum that while any politician will tell you you can’t go wrong with a “lock em up and throw away the key” manifesto, prison films are almost always on the side of the inmates: prison guards and warders are invariably the heavies.
The best prison movies – and there have been some fine examples recently: Mesrine, Bronson, Hunger, and A Prophet all come to mind – tell us something about what it means to be human: about the desire for freedom; about crime and punishment, and the abuses we inflict on one another to maintain law and order. The death row lament applies to us all in the end: Nobody gets out of here alive.
Rather than give a straight top ten list – ten just isn’t enough – here are some observations on the most memorable prison movies, characters, scenes and escape attempts.
Shackled gangs of convicts in striped vests are a common movie image. The system – presumably a holdover from slavery – was popular in the United States in the nineteenth century and prevailed in the south until the mid 1950s (with some states reviving it in the 1990s). Movies like I am Fugitive from a Chaingang (1932) helped spur the reform of the system. In Cool Hand Luke (1967) Paul Newman became the patron saint of prisoners everywhere when he repeatedly escaped from a work gang and play ball with the authorities. He also ate 50 hardboiled eggs in an hour.
A subdivision of the prison movie, Prisoner of War movies account for some of the most popular in the genre, including Bridge on the River Kwai, Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence, Stalag 17, La Grande Illusion, The Colditz Story, Empire Of The Sun, and, of course, The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen making regular visits to the cooler. Funnily enough, most POW movies show military captors in a more positive light than civilian guards in typical prison films.
Any movie prisoner worth his salt winds up in solitary confinement for a spell. Going to “the hole” is what sorts out the men from the boys. In Midnight Express it almost did for Billy Hayes. In Murder in the First Kevin Bacon is deranged by three years in solitary after being convicted of stealing $5 (it’s a true story). It’s cheating a bit, but also want to mention Old Boy here. He’s not strictly in prison, but for 15 years Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik) is held captive in a hotel room by person or persons unknown, which is about as solitary as it gets.
GUARDS and WARDENS
Really get a bad press: they’re generally either Nazis or sadists, or both, whether it’s a political art film like Hunger, a BBC sitcom like Porridge, or a slice of pulp like Paul WS Anderson’s Death Race. Bad as Hannibal Lecter is Silence Of The Lambs, we’re secretly glad when he escapes to avenge himself on the head shrinker Dr Chilton (Anthony Heald). In Shawshank Redemption – for many the greatest of all prison dramas and certainly one of the most emblematic – the chief guard is a thug and the warden – who initially seems sympathetic – turns out to be ruthless and vindictive. Perhaps the most notable exceptions are Tom Hanks in The Green Mile and Robert Redford as Brubaker, a prison governor who goes undercover as an inmate.
Wardens and guards may be dodgy, but many movies make it clear they don’t have an easy job. The baddest of the bad: Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, Tom Hardy as Bronson and Eric Bana as Chopper (“I’m just a normal bloke. A normal bloke who likes a bit of torture.”). Or how about The Marietta Mangler in Con Air: the inimitable Steve Buscemi? Buscemi, incidentally, made one of the most underrated prison movies, Animal Factory, written by reallife ex con Edward Bunker (Mr Blue to you), and featuring a pre-comeback Mickey Rourke as ‘Jan the Actress’.
Sometimes the building themselves tell the story. Notable examples would be that formidable pile of bricks the Shawshank State Prison, Lecter’s rather gothic cell in Silence of the Lambs, the Brazilian hellhole Carandiru (2003), and probably the most famous prison of them all, Alcatraz – seen to excellent advantage in The Rock, among many other appearances.
If you want to find out how you’ll have to watch the movies, but exceptional prison breaks include Clint Eastwood as the one man to escape the Rock in Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman’s attempts to get off the prison island in Papillon (1973). It’s hard to beat Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption or the elation Brad Davis feels when he gets out of that Turkish prison in Midnight Express, but two 1960s French films are worth seeking out: Robert Bresson’s rigorous A Man Escaped and Jacques Becker’s Le Trou must have influenced their better known Hollywood descendents. Last year’s two part biopic Mesrine also deserves mention for the crazy scene in which the escaped French hard man played by Vincent Cassel returns to the high security prison with a handful of grenades to break out his mates.
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