Hey Clint, You’ll Never Escape from the Top Ten Movies Behind Bars
In honor of the upcoming season 2 premiere of RECTIFY — the story of a man set free from jail after twenty years — we’re bringing you our Top 10 Movies Set Behind Bars. There are a few surprises on this list, including a vintage screwball comedy, a lot of eggs, Sigourney Weaver with no hair, an anti-James Bond film, and no Shawshank Redemption! Or maybe just a little Shawshank Redemption. You’ll have to read and find out for yourself, and vote for your favorite in the poll below. …And by the way, if you’re intrigued by these films, you might just be intrigued by RECTIFY (season 2 premiere June 19 at 9pm) — which is brought to you by the same geniuses behind Breaking Bad.
1. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
“What we’ve got here… is a failure to communicate. Some men, you just can’t reach.” When a quote takes on a life of its own outside of a movie, that’s when you know that you’re dealing with a stone-cold classic. And speaking of which… no man can eat fifty eggs. Or can he? Cool Hand Luke isn’t just the defining prison movie; it’s also a classic of 1960s cinema. Watch Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) struggle with the intense hardships of life on the chain-gang. Can he escape? Can he survive? Can one man actually eat fifty eggs? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then you don’t know Cool Hand; so run, don’t walk, to see this film, you wild, beautiful thing, you. …You crazy handful of nothin’.
2. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
“Destroy a bridge or destroy yourself” — that’s the dilemma posed by The Bridge on the River Kwai. The movie features Alec Guinness, William Holden, and director David Lean — and really, what more do you need to know? Lean’s film follows the lives of soldiers in a WWII prisoner-of-war camp, as they are forced by their captors to build a bridge in the middle of the Thai jungle. …To build or not to build? Guinness fights to finish the bridge — believing that doing so will give his men a sense of hope in the middle of a deadly jungle. (On the minus-side, finishing the bridge will also aid the enemy in a time of war.) Meanwhile, Holden struggles just as fiercely to tear the bridge down. Who is right and who is wrong? Big questions, a big, big bridge, and a big, big explosion — it’s all in here.
3. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Being in prison is bad enough. Being in prison when you know that you’re innocent is even worse. Being in prison with your dad, who is also innocent, and you’re sort of the reason that he’s in prison in the first place… well, that’s much worse indeed. This film is based on the true-life story of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, eleven men and women falsely accused of committing a terrorist bombing in England. The men and women were imprisoned for fifteen years — until new evidence showed that the police had lied, tortured, and knowingly let the real criminals go free. The film follows estranged father and son Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite) and Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) thrown into a single tiny jail cell, as they struggle to escape, know one another and understand their own lives.
4. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
If there’s a theme to most prison movies, it’s the struggle to find dignity in the most unlikely of circumstances. In this British classic, a young man commits a petty crime, and is tossed into a youth detention center in 1960s England. The young man is a gifted runner; and so he’s given a chance at freedom, if he runs and competes for the prison team. But what is he running from, and what is he running towards? The film’s final, deservedly famous scene shows that there are many different ways to run — and many ways to be free.
5. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
This gem, starring a young(ish) and charismatic Clint Eastwood, chronicles what is widely considered to be the only successful escape attempt from the prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco bay. Eastwood’s character Frank Morris, as well as his inmate pals The Anglin brothers, are all based on the real-life criminals who executed an elaborate escape in 1962, never to be seen again. Director Don Siegel packs a lot into this film–drama, suspense, prison hijincks and an ambiguous ending that will leave you forever curious as the fate of the escapees, both real and fictional.
6. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
At this point, the author has an ugly secret to reveal: he has never seen The Shawshank Redemption, even though it airs so much on TNT that the network could just be renamed “THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION PLUS WE SHOW NBA GAMES SOMETIMES CHANNEL.” But a list of prison movies without The Shawshank Redemption on it could lead to trouble… so… here it is. (It’s right here! On the list! Right here before your eyes!) In lieu of any commentary on The Shawshank Redemption, since the author hasn’t seen it, maybe we could just toss around our favorite Shawshank quotes or something. “Get busy living or get busy dying,” “I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams,” “Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of [expletive-deleted] smelling foulness I can’t even imagine…” See? Shawshank is so famous that you can quote it without even bothering to see the movie.
7. The Green Mile (1999)
Also known as “the movie by Stephen King and Frank Darabont that’s set in prison that is not The Shawshank Redemption.” So, the author actually has seen this movie, and it’s very good, and also, it has an adorable mouse in it. And hey — does The Shawshank Redemption have any mice in it, let alone an adorable mouse named “Mr. Jingles”? …No. Probably it does not.
8. Alien 3 (1992)
Shaved heads, no guns, a dying robot, and a lot of lice — this probably wasn’t what the studio expected as a follow-up to the summer blockbuster Aliens. But then, if they wanted a predictable sequel, they probably shouldn’t have hired director David Fincher (Se7en, The Social Network). The film crash-lands Lt. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) on an entirely male prison planet, along with — yes — yet another alien that she must defeat and destroy. This film was largely ignored by critics and audiences — but it was also mauled by studio executives, who butchered Fincher’s film, re-writing it and generally making things terrible. …These days, you can view the restored “Assembly Cut” version and see what the director was really up to: creating an awesome horror movie that doubles as the first — and maybe only — existential action movie. Good stuff.
9. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
A movie about prison, terror, torture, and the hunt for the most dangerous man alive, Zero Dark Thirty follows the real-life pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The film generated controversy for its depiction of torture, and for the changes that it made to the historical record. But Zero Dark Thirty exists to make a larger point about the use of torture — in the end, it spares no one, including those who inflict it.
10. The Hill (1965)
If you’re looking for some vintage, James Bond-era Sean Connery, look no further than this lost classic. Yes, it’s the 1960s and it’s Sean Connery, but… there’s no James Bond here; quite the opposite. Instead of a super-slick spy, Connery plays a desperate solider — a man trapped in a desert jail, a man forced to confront the nightmare of “the hill” over, and over, and over again. So, no suits or babes or gadgets, but if you’re looking for an unfairly ignored masterpiece, then you’ve come to the right place. There’s no escape — and there’s no exit in a larger, more philosophical sense. Watch Sean Connery as you’ve never seen him before, and watch as this film builds to a shocking — and stunningly inevitable — climax.