Classic Prison Films: Escape From Alcatraz And The Test of Time
Updated: Oct 14, 2021
Comparing Two Classic Prison Films
Naturally, when we think of prison films, The Shawshank Redemption is the first to pop into any cinephiles’ head. Since its 1994 release, the film has become a landmark of cinematic excellence, so much so, that it has also operated as an intellectual/cultural examination of the inhumane structure that defines the current western prison framework.
Shawshank Deep Dive
One of the key aspects of The Shawshank Redemption is the span of time the film covers. The initial runtime of the film is close to two and a half hours. But the time span of the narrative stretches for over two decades.
It’s a long time, and much is taken from the character of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who suffers yet endures through a stoic fortitude that allows him to conquer and eventually escape the very despair that fully embodies the monumental essence of a prison like Shawshank.
Twenty years is a long time, and enough to drive any man besides Andy Dufresne insane. Prisons in the United States aren’t exactly known for their humane treatment of prisoners. Unlike the more rehabilitative approach that Norway’s prison system focuses on, the American prison system operates in a more punitive direction, whilst equally exploiting the very same felons that presumably failed to operate in society. Slave labor is part of the prison system, which is only becoming more and more integrated into the corporate sector defining most prisons.
Nowadays, it is pretty much more profitable to incarcerate someone who can easily fill the space of a workforce that survives on wages that make average poverty look like a modern-day El Dorado. A film like The Shawshank Redemption doesn’t walk away from this level of cruelty. However, one film that inarguably depicts the inherent bleakness of the American prison system is the 1979 Don Siegel thriller, Escape From Alcatraz.
Initially, when we think about prison films, we always go back to Shawshank. Many factors that have long resonated with the film’s legacy have no doubt stayed true to its long-lasting nature. Morgan Freeman’s inspiring performance, Roger Deacon’s impeccable cinematography, and Thomas Newman’s soul-revitalizing score only work to further elevate the hopeful message of a film where hope is repeatedly crushed from the very beginning.
You don’t need the stark cruelty of Bob Gunton’s fascistic bible-thumping Warden or Clancy Brown’s sadistic prison deputy Byron Hadley to let that message sink in. The second Andy Dufresne’s blatantly one-sided verdict is decided, the idea of hope is immediately dangled like some sick fantasy rather than a possibility.
But The Shawshank Redemption wasn’t the first film to tackle the growing concerns of the prison industrial complex and all the inhumane practices that now have it recognized as more of a negative rather than an effective solution towards reintegrating prisoners back into society.
Although Escape From Alcatraz operates more from the framework of a thriller, the genius of it lies in the very element The Shawshank Redemption used, but in a much more cinematically fluent manner, and that is time. No good prison film goes without exploring the most valuable commodity, other than dignity, that the institutionalization of prisoners deprives them of, and that is the concept of lost time.
Whether we’re talking ten years, twenty years, or a hope-shattering life sentence, the fact of the matter is that time is the most useful weapon prisons use on prisoners. Even upon finally achieving the release years of ungodly patience rewarded them with, the time lost has not been erased. The same goes for the time in prison and how it is initially felt in what is an endless stream of pointless repetition and silence Don Siegel beautifully depicts.
Escape From Alcatraz uses the element of time in the span of just two years to tell a true story where the planning of an escape was not merely some detail-oriented approach conceited by a brilliant mastermind. If anything, it was a plan that relied on patience and a methodical understanding of the steps needed to understand the cost of one slip in what was once considered the most inescapable prison in the United States up until its closing in 1963. That was just one year following the 1962 escape this film centers on.
When it comes to the historical accuracy any true-story-based film uses to tell its narrative, relying on a one hundred percent margin is pointless. For a film as bleak and as cold in dialogue as Escape From Alcatraz, it’s clear that even though it is depicting a historical event, the psychological thriller element of its particle genre is the dominant force. Now, it’s clear that the accuracy regarding the existence and calculated escape of characters like Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) and the Anglin brothers (Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward) is depicted with a level of precise focus.
However, the main takeaway of Escape From Alcatraz is its focus on time, and the details encompassed in that very execution that serves to challenge both the prisoners and the audience.
If one were to ask, what’s a more preferable prison film to watch, then The Shawshank Redemption would’ve already have won that, given it has a more widely appreciated mainstream appeal. Escape From Alcatraz serves more as both an invitation and a test in the prison experience. As accurate as The Shawshank Redemption was in depicting the inhumanity that defines the prison system, which is only taking on a more privatized approach, Escape From Alcatraz allows the viewer to feel it more directly in terms of cinematic experimentation.
This all goes back to the element of time used in the film, and how instead of operating within the numerical framework, it utilizes it for the audience to feel it more appropriate - to the point where it’s understandable to look at Don Siegel’s historical prison thriller as somewhat of a methodical yet meanderingly repetitive exercise. An exercise in just who has more patience, the prisoners in the planning of their escape, or our patience, which is not really different from the ultimatum of deciding whether Morris and his associates survived escaping what was once considered an inescapable fortress.
Then again, maybe even in death, there is greater freedom than being locked up in a place that, much like Shawshank, does everything to crush hope and a yearning for the inner beauty even the most humble and reformed prisoners are denied in what is the prison industrial complex.
Andres Benatar is thepyrrhic.com resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.