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The Great Escape

The prison film might be the genre most antithetical to how we view heroes and villains. As opposed to films set in courtrooms where the victim usually wins and the bad guy goes to jail to contemplate his or her crimes, the protagonists in prison films are often the guilty party, the ones who couldn’t get away or hire the high-priced attorney, or the ones who couldn’t beat the system. At the same time, the villain is the system, the man, the enforcer or rules, or the sadistic guards keeping order – establishments that we view as safeguards against tyranny in real life. The intrigue surrounding prison films is that their narratives often conflict with our constructed view of sensibilities and security. In effect, the prison film symbolizes our feeling of entrapment outside of the jail. Those that we vilify within the prison film are relatable to potentially duplicitous politicians, bosses, or friends.

Here are what I consider the top five prison films of all time. To qualify for this list, the majority of the action within a film needed to take place within a prison of some sort, thus Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange doesn’t appear on this list despite my affinity for it, primarily because Alex’s time in the prison is less than his time outside of it. The same goes for The Deer Hunter, a movie that is best known for its final scene, but one that really focuses on adjusting to life outside of the war.

5. The Great Escape (1963)

Narrowly edging out The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1963’s The Great Escape tells the story of Allied POW’s in a Nazi prison camp during WWII. Released on July 4th and containing a veritable murderers’ row of acclaimed actors, The Great Escape was the equivalent today’s RED. The plot is straightforward and creates a simple narrative that follows the entire prison camp in their attempt to escape. At the same time, the characters within the film are almost superheroesque in that they all have their special skills and traits: the forger, the scrounger, the mole, the cooler king, the big X, the surveyor, and the like. Most interestingly about The Great Escape is the presence of a prison within a prison. At the beginning of the film, dozens of soldiers are marched in and allowed to walk around the grounds. The perimeter is secured by high fences replete with rows of barbed wire and towers with machine-gun-happy Nazis residing in each eagle’s nest. The quarters for each pair of prisoners are little cabins with a woodstove, closet, and bunk beds, which imagines less a prison and more a summer camp – with bullets. On the outskirts of their confines resides “the cooler,” an isolation cell for anyone caught trying to escape, or anyone who has escaped and been brought back. The sentences for said cooler range from one week to one month, and it is with this “cooler” that the prison film narrative is doubly established.

Certainly, as an American viewer, we can say that those within the camp are wrongfully imprisoned because history has proven that the Axis powers were the villains. However, within the camp, the prisoners’ skills more closely resemble qualities we would consider criminal in a free society. Hilts, the Cooler King (Steve McQueen) is a veritable burglar able to break in and out of any domicile. Hendley, the Scrounger (James Garner) is a thief, and Blythe (Donald Pleasance) is a counterfeiter and identity thief, while MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) is a spy. The “cooler” comes into play as the punitive tool for Kommandent von Luger, a man who is less “sadistic warden” and more the man charged with keeping order in his prison, but it’s the effect that the cooler has on its resident – namely, Ives (Angus Lennie) that transforms its use as order-enforcer into vilified tool of the oppressor. All in all, The Great Escape is a fun ride filled with motorcycle chases and tips and tricks on how to fool the SS.

4. Papillon (1973)

Set initially in a penal colony in French Guiana, Papillion tells the true story of Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen) and his various attempts to escape with fellow criminal Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). There is some debate on whether or not Charriere was wrongly accused of murder or if he actually committed the crime, but Papillion exemplifies the sadism that we apply endemically to prisons in film, beginning with the opening scene that shows prisoners gathered around a guillotine and forced to witness the execution of an unruly inmate. The guillotine itself was a product of both necessary expedience and a symbol to sedate the masses. As a public display of power, the guillotine made prisoners further subservient because their execution would be no mystery. Humanity does not reside in a wooden frame or metal blade, so any and all pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears.

At the same time, Charriere and Dega’s parasitic friendship stems from selfishness rather than camaraderie. Desperate to escape from his confines, Charriere offers protection to the affluent Dega, who happens to be very popular among the inmates because he was incarcerated for running what equates to a Ponzi scheme, something that affected a number of the criminals within the prison. In turn, Dega funds Charriere’s escape andsecures his own.

The solitary confinement scene may run a little long and become a bit visceral prior to Charriere’s release, but the schemes and plots that he derives to find freedom – particularly his attempt to escape from Devil’s Island at the very end of the film – are powerfully shot and endearing … even if he’s a murderer.

3. Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

Telling the true story of Frank Morris, the only man who has allegedly successfully escaped from Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz offers a slightly different take on the prison film in that there is less focus on sadistic guards and more focus on the process by which Morris and his two accomplices enter the water. In real life, their bodies were never found, so it’s possible that they were eaten by a shark at some point, but it’s also possible that they’re living comfortably with Elvis and Tupac, somewhere in Boca Raton.

Regardless of their eventual fates, Morris and his cronies give us a perfect example of lifetime criminals that we root for on the silver screen. First arrested at the age of 13, Morris was a legitimate career inmate who was finally moved to Alcatraz in an attempt to contain him. What changes this real life reprobate into celluloid protagonist is his cleverness and intelligence, things that ironically didn’t prevent him from being arrested a plethora of times, but I digress. However, despite Morris’ real life antics and his subterfuge within the prison walls, it’s difficult not to root for his success at the end of the film. Perhaps this also stems from the notoriety surrounding the conditions of Alcatraz. For whatever reasons, Escape from Alcatraz turns our interpretation of hero and villain on its head.

2. Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Sentenced to two years in a Southern chain gang for “destruction of municipal property,” or more accurately cutting the heads off of parking meters, Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) refuses to be confined by social law and order. Here, Jackson is not a hardened criminal; rather, everything in life seems to be his way of “passing time,” whether it’s in the army or behind barbed wire. Cool Hand Luke doesn’t depict the sadistic warden, though Strother Martin is often mislabeled as one. In fact, the bosses within the camp give Jackson enough rope to hang himself, reiterating the punishment for those who try to escape repeatedly. The warnings are there – as are the symbolic leg chains – but none of this prevents Jackson, who has “rabbit in his blood.”

In one of Newman’s best performances, he portrays Jackson as a likable fellow with slate blue eyes and a charming smile, aesthetics that work even on his fellow prisoners that make him their de facto leader and idol through whom they live vicariously. At the same time, he is ultimately vilified by his peers for being human in a Christ-allegory where he’s left in a heap on the floor, a sharp contrast to the doctored photo where he is adorned by two women that cost him “a week’s pay.” Instead of appreciating the illusion and gesture, Jackson’s fellow prisoners castigate him for failing to miraculously preternatural.

In the end, Cool Hand Luke studies the human condition in a situation where someone or something needs to present itself as an ideal. It also shows the mostly inevitable, unfortunate fall of our idols.

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

It would be difficult to place Cool Hand Luke at number 2, if it weren’t for The Shawshank Redemption. Based on the Stephen King novella, this film offers very few twists and turns and never tries to absolve the prisoners of their crimes. Even through Red’s the “only guilty man in Shawshank” while everyone else’s “lawyer fucked” them, their perfunctory denial makes them human. Each prisoner knows the other is guilty, but no one can say it because it effectively disenfranchises them, giving them little to fight for. By right, the innocent fight for their freedom and castigate the system, so why not don the mask of the wrongly accused? The only legitimately not-guilty man is Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), but he avoids referring to himself as innocent because his selfishness and indifference toward his wife led her into the arms of another man, serendipitously bringing her to her death in a botched robbery.

The true narrative in The Shawshank Redemption is not whether Dufresne will be exonerated, but that human decency exists in the hearts of most man, criminals and the unprosecuted alike while those who show no humanity are the truly vilified. This is certainly a common trope in most prison films – and three of the four films on this list – but there are moments in Shawshank that capture the equalizing moments of existence: beers on a roof, classical music, stacks of canonical books in a library, and loneliness.