Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, opening this weekend, is a state-of-the-art action thriller featuring the latest advancements in special effects and cleavage-baring underthings — but underneath all that 21st-century gimcrackery, it’s also a throwback to one of the most time-honored tales in film: the prison break movie. We decided to celebrate this nod to tradition by compiling a list of some other noteworthy examples from the genre, from 75-year-old classics to more recent (and more big-budget) blockbusters. Sharpen that nail file, keep an eye out for the warden, and get ready to bust out of the slammer Total Recall style!
If you only know Hume Cronyn from his late-period “kindly old man” roles in movies like *batteries not included or the Cocoon series, it’ll come as something of a shock to see him in 1947’s Brute Force, where he plays a manipulative, sadistic warden whose pressure-cooker tactics produce violence so hellacious it served as an inspiration for Oliver Stone’s prison break sequence in Natural Born Killers. Noteworthy at the time for its progressive stance on prisoner treatment, it survives today as the movie MSN’s Sean Axmaker called “one of the most brutal films about caged men ever made.”
Blending the distinctive Aardman Animations style with a smart, funny, and exciting jailbreak story about anthropomorphic stop-motion chickens whose only hope for avoiding slaughter rests on a cocky rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson), 2000’s Chicken Run affectionately parodied the conventions of the genre while demonstrating why they’ve proven so durable. No matter the context, any filmgoer can understand the basic human need for freedom — even if it’s being expressed by cartoon fowl. “What really makes it special,” argued Kevin N. Laforest of the Montreal Film Journal, “more than the impressive animation, is the endearing characters and involving plot.”
This 1967 classic has it all: Paul Newman in his early prime, toplining a stellar cast that included George Kennedy and Jo Van Fleet, as well as Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker, and Harry Dean Stanton in supporting roles; one of the most quotable lines in movie history; and not one, not two, but three prison breaks. All of them were unsuccessful, of course, but that was never the point — Cool Hand Luke is about refusing to lay down and quit, no matter how painful the consequences, and whether you take it as a cautionary tale or an ode to the nonconformist, nobody ever looked cooler than Newman in a prison uniform. This is, as Empire’s Kim Newman wrote, “One of those movies you remember Great Moments from.”
Okay, so it isn’t the highest-rated movie on the list. But even if it didn’t win the Palme d’Or, Con Air combined a popcorn-gobbling premise and a top-shelf cast with almost irresistible exuberance, adding up to a loud, action-packed, marvelously over-the-top $224 million smash hit. Who needs high art when you have Nicolas Cage as a drawling ex-Army Ranger whose path to freedom is blocked by a maniacal villain played by John Malkovich? Certainly not the Arizona Daily Star’s Phil Villarreal, who said that Con Air “pulls off the impossible task of having the film make constant fun of itself and its viewers while keeping the storyline grounded enough for emotional payoffs.”
See that guy in the poster? He’s so flinty, he could probably chip his way out of prison with his bare hands — but Alcatraz was no ordinary hoosegow, and this isn’t your average prison break movie. A swan song for Clint Eastwood’s prolific five-film partnership with director Don Siegel, Escape from Alcatraz dramatizes the unknown fates of the three men who, in 1962, freed themselves from the island prison, never to be seen or heard from again. It’s an undeniably irresistible setup for a film, and Siegel does right by it, capturing the action in typically terse, economical fashion, aided by a cast that included Fred Ward and Patrick McGoohan. “What Mr. Siegel has made is fiction,” explained Vincent Canby of the New York Times, hastening to praise it as “a first-rate action movie that is about the need and the decision to take action, as well as the action itself.”
Breaking out of your average maximum security prison is hard enough. But what if it took up an entire city — that just happened to be surrounded by a 50-foot wall and dozens of explosives? Obviously, no ordinary man could free himself — but then, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is far from ordinary, and that’s why he’s the one the government turns to when the President (Donald Pleasence) is kidnapped by a flock of finger-stealing inmates. Of course, Plissken is an inmate himself, and a bit of a bastard in the bargain, but in the post-Watergate era, a good anti-hero was about the best we could hope for — as well as what the Q Network’s James Kendrick called “an intriguing window into the fears and anxieties of the early Reagan years, and a film-lover’s cavalcade of genre mash-up.”
It was the first foreign language film ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, and for good reason: this 1937 classic is arguably Jean Renoir’s finest effort, a tenderly humanistic plea for peace and tolerance in an era when both of those things were in perilously short supply. Even then, Illusion‘s surface plot — about French POWs plotting their escape from a World War I German prison camp — wasn’t exactly new; what’s remarkable about the film is how deftly Renoir ties that backdrop into his startlingly forward-thinking messages about race and class. “Its story is so perfectly (and economically) told, its characters are so rich, human and civilized, and its dialogue so intelligent and revealing,” observed William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “that the film wraps a spell around you that’s hard to describe but impossible to forget.”
This might be the definitive prison break movie, despite the fact that it takes the accomplishments and dogged determination of a largely British group of World War II POWs and replaces them with American soldiers. But it’s only fair, really — even if the Brits were the driving force in the real-life Great Escape, we were the ones who had Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, and if combining their prodigious cool into one classic escape film meant a little historical fudging, well, the ends justify the means. And when it’s all said and done, The Great Escape is, as Marjorie Baumgarten wrote for the Austin Chronicle, “One of the all-time great action movies.”
Unlike most of the movies on this list, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express doesn’t try to find a lot of entertainment value in its story — its screenplay, adapted by Oliver Stone from Billy Hayes’ memoir, plunges the viewer into the hellish nightmare of an American tourist (Brad Davis) who is sentenced to 30 years in a Turkish prison after being caught with hashish. Grim, violent, and frequently hard to watch, Express provoked the ire of those who felt it painted Turkish people in an unfair light, but it won three Academy Awards and earned praise from most critics — and if nothing else, it serves as a painful warning. As Shannon J. Harvey wrote for the Sunday Times, “Anyone thinking of smuggling drugs into a foreign country should watch this first.”
A decade after helping set the standard for movies about busting out of the slammer with The Great Escape, Steve McQueen teamed up with Dustin Hoffman for another classic: Papillon, adapted from the novel by real-life ex-con Henri Charrière. McQueen starred as the Hollywood version of Charrière, sent to the infamous Devil’s Island prison for murdering a pimp, where he teams up with fellow inmate Louis Dega (Hoffman) and spends a decade trying to reclaim his freedom. Ultimately, the version of events presented in Charrière’s book may not jibe with the true story of his years in confinement, but they sure did make for exciting cinema — 150 full minutes of what the Denver Post’s Michael Booth called “A rousing drama of endurance, opportunism and friendship under fire.”
The prison break story so nice that Werner Herzog had to tell it twice, Rescue Dawn finds the director dramatizing the tale of Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler, whose real-life (and truly horrific) ordeal he first recounted in Herzog’s 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. What brought about this rare backward glance from one of our most restless filmmakers? Dengler’s inspiring refusal to give up no matter how incredible the odds — whether facing a plane crash, imprisonment and torture by Laotian communists, or the weeks he spent staggering through the jungle after his final escape. It’s an incredible story done justice by Herzog’s ever-inimitable lens, not to mention gripping performances from Christian Bale (who played Dengler) and Steve Zahn. Wrote Stephen Whitty for the Newark Star-Ledger, “In its study of an American pilot, surviving only because of his single-minded obsession with staying alive, Rescue Dawn is compelling and dramatic and emotional.”
An artful blend of gut-clenching tragedy, horrific violence, and heartwarming drama, The Shawshank Redemption is arguably the greatest modern prison break movie — which is a little ironic, considering that it didn’t do much at the box office when it was originally released. And it’s true that the movie is a bit of a tough sell, classic status notwithstanding; unlike a lot of prison break films, it isn’t about busting out of the joint so much as it is about learning to cope with life’s injustices, refusing to give up on hope, and — at long last — taking redemption even when it isn’t offered. Is Shawshank overlong and shamelessly sentimental? Perhaps. But it’s also, in the words of Variety’s Leonard Klady, “A testament to the human spirit.”
William Holden famously turned down his role in Stalag 17, believing the character was too unlikable to play — but the studio wouldn’t let him say no, and it’s a good thing they didn’t, because he eventually won a Best Actor Oscar for his work as Sefton, the cynical World War II POW whose chummy relationships with the camp’s guards make him the target of vicious rumors from the other inmates. Directed by Billy Wilder with his customary dark humor, Stalag 17 blended bleak laughs with high-stakes drama, prompting the Chicago Reader’s Don Druker to reflect, “The resulting letdown is terrific, but along the way there is some of the funniest men-at-loose-ends interplay that Wilder has ever put on film.?