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The Top 10 Most 'Captivating' Prison Films


Remember Summer of 2011?  It's just a blur to me too.  But I do remember (in addition to our frantically working to meet deadlines for the release of my film Ratline) I was climbing aboard a feature film that was in the early stages of development.  It was a horror movie set in an abandoned prison, and I'd joined on as a producer.  The film did not get made, and as of a week ago, I assumed the project was dead in the water.  Not so.  Looks like there's still life in the beast yet.  I'll know more next month what tasks await me in nudging this resilient project toward a greenlight.

This happy news got my brain crankin' about prison films, and which I thought were the big standouts. 

I'm no expert on this category of cinema.  There are many incarceration motion pictures I most certainly need to see that I just haven't gotten 'round to yet, like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Brute Force (1947), directed by Jules Dassin, A Man Escaped (1956), directed by Robert Bresson, Le Trou (1960), directed by Jacques Becker, Down By Law (1986) directed by Jim Jarmusch, and A Prophet (2009), directed by Jacques Audiard. 

There are other films that I saw long ago, remember liking, but cannot recall clearly enough to list 'em here - like Dead Man Walking (1995), directed by Tim Robbins. 

Other popular prison flicks simply don't intrigue me.  Maybe I would love The Green Mile (1999), directed by Frank Darabont, but I just can't work up the interest to see it.  (Please don't shank me in the exercise yard, Mr. Darabont.) 

So, this list is definitely shaped by my personal tastes and viewing habits.  If I check out the movies above and others, I might write this list again in a few months and compile ten completely different films.

Okay, time to serve some justice.  You've been sentenced to my Top 10 Most "Captivating" Prison Films, presented in order of release.

The Great Escape (1963)

Directed by John Sturges.

A group of allied prisoners-of-war design an elaborate plot to escape a German "escape proof" P.O.W. camp.  Humor, suspense, and thrilling action mesh to form an exceptionally enjoyable cinematic ride.  The outstanding cast (several were actual P.O.W.s during World War II) includes Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, and Steve McQueen, who also stars in:

Papillion (1973)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner.

Tenacious Henri "Papillon" Charierre makes multiple escape attempts after being sentenced to life on a horrendous French prison island.  An adventure film as much as it is a prison film, this grim, engrossing, underrated movie is from the director of Planet Of The Apes (1968) and Patton (1970). 

Midnight Express (1978)

Directed by Alan Parker.

American Billy Hayes is thrown into prison after he's caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey.  This nightmarish tale won writer Oliver Stone a Best Screenplay Oscar.  Alan Parker would go on to direct Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Angel Heart (1987), and Mississippi Burning (1988).

Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

Directed by Don Siegel.

A group of prisoners attempt a daring escape from the infamous prison island, from which no inmate had ever escaped before.  Starring the always-awesome Clint Eastwood, this is probably the first movie that comes to mind when I think "prison film".  Don Siegel had previously helmed the classics Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) and Dirty Harry (1971).  The Great Escape, Papillion, Midnight Express, and Escape From Alcatraz are all based on true stories.

Bad Boys (1983)

Directed by Rick Rosenthal.

A Chicago teenage delinquent is sent to a juvenile prison facility after accidentally killing a little boy.  (Sorry, Martin Lawrence fans, this is not the 1995 Michael Bay masterpiece.)  The supporting cast of youths can't keep up with Sean Penn and the adult actors (except Ally Sheedy, who is excellent as Penn's girlfriend), but this underrated 80s street thug drama from the director of Halloween II (1981) holds up remarkably well today.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Directed by Oliver Stone.

Serial killers Mickey and Mallory slaughter for kicks, are irresponsibly glorified by the media, and become legendary folk heroes.  Woody Harrelson caught filmgoers off-guard when he leapt from lovable doofus Woody Boyd on NBC's Cheers to off-his-rocker Mickey Knox in this controversial, violent, nerve-poking satire.  This half blood-soaked road trip film / half prison flick ends with a hellish prison riot shot at an actual penitentiary, using real inmates.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Directed by Frank Darabont.

Old-timer inmate Red bonds with newcomer Andy, a young, successful banker who has been sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Given the fact that this is often cited as One Of The Best Films Ever Made, and lots of people gush, "This movie changed my life!" and the fact that it has long lingered as IMDb's #1 ranked film - of every film ever made, ever - it would be criminal (ha, ha) to exclude it from this list.  In my opinion, however, this is a good movie, but pretty ridiculously overrated.  There, I said it.  I'm expecting the angry mobs with torches and pitchforks to descend upon me any minute.

American History X (1998)

Directed by Tony Kaye.

A white supremacist skinhead goes to  prison for killing two street thugs, then becomes determined to keep his younger brother from straying down the same path of violence and hate.  Director Tony Kaye stirred up a hurricane of drama during post-production, insisting that studio New Line Cinema and star Edward Norton were destroying his art in the editing process.  Kaye disowned the final cut, and even demanded (unsuccessfully) that New Line change his name in the credits to the ludicrous pseudonym "Humpty Dumpty".  Such hubbub and controversy typically means the movie is gonna stink, which was what I was expecting as this film's release date drew near.  However, the movie ended up being a high impact, heart wrenching, thoroughly gripping drama.  Norton was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, the film got rave reviews, and it gained a passionate following.

Chicken Run (2000)

Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park.

Rocky the rooster and Ginger the chicken lead their fellow fowl in a dangerous escape from the farm and certain doom.  C'mon, after films about serial killers, neo-Nazis, prison rape, and maddening isolation, it's absolutely acceptable to lighten up a bit with a family-friendly animated comedy.  This thrilling escape tale comes from the masterminds behind the brilliant Wallace and Gromit films, so ya know it's gonna be an enormously entertaining movie.  Now back to our regularly scheduled tragedy and despair...


Rescue Dawn (2006)

Directed by Werner Herzog.

During the Vietnam War, a U.S. fighter pilot struggles to survive after being shot down on a mission over Laos and detained in a prison camp - which he plots to escape from.  Another film based on a true story, this drama comes from maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog (Nosferatu The Vampyre, The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call - New Orleans).  The dedicated cast lost significant weight to depict the starving prisoners.  Super- committed star Christian Bale shed the most weight, almost always refused a stunt double, and ate actual live, wriggling maggots for the role.  The grueling, perilous shoot on remote locations in Thailand provided the desired results - the real-life pain, fear, danger, and insanity are uniquely and vibrantly etched into this film.

Thanks for reading.

- Eric Stanze