As the Great Pandemic Lockdown of 2020 grinds along, forcing millions of Americans to self-confine themselves for extended periods, it’s natural to tap into Hollywood’s fabulous library of prison movies for a dollop of catharsis.
Prison movies don’t celebrate confinement: they cheer (and often weep for) those seeking escape from it. We ally ourselves with the protagonist, whether innocent or undeserving of mercy, because from an existential perspective, we all feel trapped and we all crave release from the facts that contain us.
Watching these movies won’t liberate you from confinement, but they can put your voluntary self-isolation in stark perspective. How lucky we all are, because unlike the protagonists in these films, there are no physical bars, guards, walls, or wardens keeping us from the world — just an invisible terror that will soon hopefully find itself imprisoned.
Why this list?
Hollywood made dozens of prison movies in the 1930s to warn youth of the dangers of descending into hooliganism. We do not consider them here (not because they’re not eloquent expressions of the Zeit Geist of the 1930s, but because this reviewer has failed to view them all). Here we focus on prison films made after World War II – a time of great cultural ferment and filmic experimentation.
In alphabetical order, the following films are all viewable on Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and/or the Criterion Collection. Here, with one exception, we present only their trailers (which range widely in terms of their ability to convey the filmmaker’s vision). (Frankly, I think the trailers do a poor job, but that’s typical for the trailer genre).
Apologies in advance: these links are to YouTube, so you will likely have to endure some ads.
Birdman of Alcatraz
Burt Lancaster plays murderer Robert Stroud, the silver lining of whose long sentence being time to study birds and perfect treatments for their illnesses. This moving film celebrates the indomitable nature of the human spirit. (Lancaster should have won the Academic Award for his performance but that’s another story). Karl Malden, Edmond O’Brian, Thelma Ritter, and a pre-“Kojak” Telly Savalas round out an excellent cast.
Another Burt Lancaster classic. Director Jules Dassin examines the brutality, futility, and waste of prison life. Dassin’s dismal take on confinement was directly influenced by the genocidal atrocities of World War II, making Brute Force one of the darkest prison films ever made. Charles Bickford, Hume Cronyn, and Sam Levine round out the male cast stuck “on the inside;” Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines, and Anita Colby star as their women “on the outside.”(Trivia: the theme from “Dragnet” was repurposed from this movie).
Escape from Alcatraz
Clint Eastwood is the protagonist. Patrick McGoohan is his wily adversary (the warden). A duel to the finish, with history left to judge whether Eastwood’s character and co-conspirator escapees truly got off the island (they probably did).
Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, doomed prisoners sent to Devil’s Island, must find a way to survive the cruel, subhuman circumstances prevailing in French Guyana. McQueen’s bids for freedom – the first betrayed, the second triumphant – are among the most memorable escape sequences in cinema.
Werner Herzog directs Christian Bale in this electric, thrill-churning adventure of a U.S. airman shot down and cruelly imprisoned by the Viet Cong. An against-all-odds race to escape in the jungle makes this realistic, tautly-wound film irresistible.
Stalag 17 was the first post-war film from Hollywood that dared to tackle the plight of American POWs during World War II. Bill Holden is the protagonist, Peter Graves the betraying stooge (whose ruse is caught in an exchange about baseball scores) and Otto Preminger the commandant. Directed by Billy Wilder, this gritty 1952 must-see is free on YouTube in its entirety.
The Great Escape
The greatest all-star cast, including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and other greats of the 1960s, propel this (mostly) true-life blockbuster of a mass escape from a German prison camp for airmen into screen immortality.
The Green Mile
Chalk up one for magical realism courtesy of fantasy writer Stephen King. Tom Hanks stars as a Depression-era death row corrections officer who witnesses supernatural events emanating from a prisoner. Hyperbolic? Yes. True? You decide.
The Longest Yard (original version)
Burt Reynolds at his rambunctious best in a film culminating in an all-out football battle between guards and prisoners.
The Shawshank Redemption
A framed, innocent man. A cruel system. While its no-holds-bars realism occasionally makes this film hard to watch, the film — highlighting the stellar charms of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman — holds its own with the best of prison movies created by Hollywood.