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Crime on a desert island (part four): Prison films


by Professor John Scott


While few prison films have enjoyed widespread appeal, save, perhaps The Shawshank Redemption (1994), they have enjoyed an enduring place in cinema and television. The golden age of prison cinema was perhaps the 1930s, which spawned classics such as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), which used the prison to examine social justice themes amidst the turmoil of The Great Depression. A brief revival of the genre during the 1960s produced classics such as the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and Cool Hand Luke (1967) and there has been a steady stream of such film since, with television now a home for the genre with programs such as Prison Break (2005) and Orange is the New black (2013).


Unlike other genres, prison films have frequently drawn upon real events for inspiration. They place the individual against an uncaring and cruel state penal apparatus. Despite this, few prison films seem to have motivated popular movements for penal reform and it be concluded that a large part of the appeal of the genre is a voyeuristic fascination with confinement and the barbarities it entails.


In an age where so much of the spectacle of punishment is hidden from view, prison dramas provide an opportunity to glimpse into a secluded space occupied by Criminal Others.  Another appeal of the genre may be a latent homoeroticism contained in many prison movies. Indeed, a motif in many is camaraderie among men and prison stories often have reference to bonding between younger and older men, be it in comedies such as Porridge (1974-1977) or more serious films such as Shawshank. In this way, these films are as much en exploration of masculinity as they are explorations of social justice. While women prison populations are increasing, only a handful of films have been made about women’s experiences of confinement. One of the more exceptional these is the Irish/UK production Magdalene Sisters (2002).


Pornography, both gay and heterosexual, has been littered with references to prisons.  The prison at once provides an opportunity to exploit same-sex eroticism, but it also is a forum in which to explore power with its obvious connections with sadomasochism and B&D.  In mid-2014 six people were arrested in San Francisco protesting a prison themed gay Pride party. Protesters were concerned that the organizers of the event would trivialise the experience of confinement given historical relations between sexual and other minorities and law enforcement.

So here are tend films to see which will make being confined to a desert island seem like a holiday:

  1. Cool Hand Luke (1967). Directed by Stuart Rosenberg (1927-2007) and staring Paul Newman (1925-2008) in the title role. Famous for the line ‘What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate’.
  2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Directed by Frank Darabont (1959-) and starring Time Robbins (1958-) and Morgan Freeman (1937-). Adapted from a novella by horror writer Steven King (1947-).
  3. Midnight Express (1978).  Directed by Alan Parker (1944-), with Brad David (1949-1991) as Billy Hayes, a convicted drug smuggler who was imprisoned in Turkey between 1970-1975.
  4. Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Once again, teams director Don Siegel (1912-1991) with Clint Eastwood (1930-), following success of Dirty Harry (1971). Dramatizes what might have been the only successful escape from the maximum security prison island in 1960.
  5. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002), with standout performance from Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) in the title role as real life inmate Robert Stroud, who keeps birds as pets in prison and becomes an expert on bird diseases.
  6. Papillon (1973). Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (1920-1989), with Steve McQueen (1930-1980) in the title role as real-life safe-cracker and murderer Henri Charrière (Papillon), sentenced to the notorious French penal colony of Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.
  7. Dead Man Walking (1995). Directed by Tim Robbins (1958-), tells the story of Sister Helen, played by Susan Sarandon (1946-) in an Oscar winning role, who advocates for a death row rapist and Killer played by Sean Penn (1960).
  8. Hunger (2008). Irish film directed by Steve McQueen (1969-) and starring Michael Fassbender (1977-) as Bobby Sands who led a 1981 hunger strike in which IRA prisoners protested against the removal of their Special Category Status.
  9. Chopper (2000). Australian autobiographical film based on the exploits of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read. Directed by Andrew Dominik (1967-) and starring Eric Bana (1968-) in the title role.
  10. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Directed by Milos Foreman (1932-) and starring Jack Nicholson (1937-) as a recidivist criminal who seeks a transfer from a prison farm to the more ‘relaxed’ environment of a mental institution.

 Next week: true crime.

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