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Friday, August 12, 2011

10 Greatest Prison Escape Movies of all Time


Prison break movies are always fun to watch, whether the escapes are made by Allied POWs or just common criminals. It appeals to the subversive side of human nature to see a convict stick it to the system and run free, especially one who the audience knows doesn’t deserve to be locked up in the first place.

Prison break films are very adaptable and can be written to coincide with many different genres, including thrillers, adventure movies and even comedies (as fans of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times will know). Here we list the ten best jailbreak and POW escape movies of all time.

10. Papillon

The odd, trippy prison break movie that is Papillon stars Steve McQueen as a petty crook who is exiled to the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where existence is a hell of scorching weather, dangerous animals and hideous disease. When your first day starts with hiding a metal cylinder full of money up your ass, you know you aren’t at summer camp… The movie chronicles the protagonist’s many escape attempts over the course of his 14-year sentence, as McQueen goes from… well… Steve McQueen in 1973 to a used-up, white-haired, broken-toothed old man — a bit like The Shawshank Redemption but with fewer posters of actresses to hide the tunnels behind. McQueen does a great job as the title character and absolutely dominates every scene he appears in, despite the formidable acting talent surrounding him (co-star Dustin Hoffman, for example). The dangerous cliff-jumping stunt performed during Papillon’s final escape attempt is also a milestone in cinema. A classic convict film.

9. Midnight Express

A grim and sometimes ultra-violent movie, Midnight Express tells the true story of US citizen Billy Hayes, a real-life figure who made the huge mistake of being caught smuggling hashish out of Istanbul. The would-be drug dealer ends up incarcerated for five years in a Turkish prison, one that turns out to make HBO’s Oz look like a kid’s playpen. The movie is tensely directed (especially at the beginning when the protagonist is trying to take the drugs past customs), and the twist in which Hayes finally manages to escape through sheer luck (after almost getting into serious trouble with the guard) is brilliantly done. Despite the criticism the movie received for its depiction of the Turkish penal system, if you want a real horror story about what can happen when you carry drugs in a foreign country this is definitely your film.

7. Holes

Based on a novel by Louis Sachar, Holes is the story of a wrongly convicted teenage boy sent to a camp in the desert where children are forced to endlessly dig the titular “holes,” day in and day out. This is one movie guaranteed to make you feel hot and tired just watching it… Unlike most Disney adaptations, Holes manages to keep the grittiness and “magical realism” (read: strangeness) of the original book intact, and it also features a hilariously repulsive performance from Jon Voight as the cowboy counselor, Mr. Sir. About the only bad thing you can say about Holes is that it introduced the world to the acting of Shia LaBeouf, who was fine in this movie but should now just go and get trodden on by a big CGI robot already.

7. The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

The 2000s version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic revenge story, The Count of Monte Cristo upped the swashbuckling action while keeping the Bonaparte era intrigue which made the original such a timeless classic. The plot involves naval officer, Edmond Dantès (the titular Count) being betrayed by his friend, Fernand Mondego, and his imprisonment and eventual escape from the dreaded island prison of Chateau d’If. Although this is a period drama of a prison movie, Dante uses the classic POW method to get out: a tunnel under the wall. The movie was hailed by critics as a refreshing return to un-ironic adventure films, after an endless string of more self-aware movies like 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask. It’s amazing that new audiences can still be introduced to one of the original prison break stories more than 150 years after it was created.

6. La Grande Illusion

“A film about the war where you don’t see any fighting or spying” (a quote from the trailer) may not sound promising for one of the great masterpieces of French cinema, but this story of class, ethnicity and politics told through the lives of POWs in a WWI German prison is a classic for a reason. The movie was controversial when it was released for its anti-war message and, for the time, shocking content, which included soldiers discussing STDs and prostitutes (although modern viewers are more likely to notice some of the frankly homoerotic scenes between the prisoners). There are especially heartbreaking moments during the French prisoners’ escape as the head of the German camp is forced to choose between his respect for the head officer of the prisoners and his duty to his country. La Grande Illusion also has the distinction of having been considered subversive by both the French and the Germans in WWII.

5. Escape to Victory

Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone in the same movie? A soccer movie, even? It sounds like something Caine would have made during his bad old “throw me money and I’ll appear in anything” days, but Escape to Victory is actually a surprisingly decent film. (Very) loosely based on true events, the movie is about a group of WWII POWs and their plan to play a soccer match against their Nazi captors and escape during the game. Despite the distraction of Stallone’s giant, hammy facial expressions, which seem to fill the entire screen at times, most of the film is well put together. There are two really brilliant scenes: the French crowd singing “La Marseillaise” in defiance at the Germans, and the team refusing take the chance to escape in the hopes of winning the game. It’s just like the British to put soccer over everything else, even winning WWII…

4. Stalag 17

Made just eight years after the end of WWII, this film about American airmen interned in a POW camp is now considered an all-time classic. The plot concerns a group of servicemen attempting to survive while doing time, and the efforts of one of them to help a rich prisoner escape and deal with a “stoolie” (the unfortunate WWII name for a spy) who is determined to thwart their plan to break free. For a fairly funny war movie it boasts some impressive acting, with an Academy Award-winning performance from William Holden. Famously, Holden’s acceptance speech for his award was cut to just two words, “Thank you,” due to time constrains. The frustrated star was forced to take out full-page ads in Hollywood magazines in order to thank all of the people he wasn’t able to during his speech (presumably dozens, knowing Oscars speeches…).

3. Escape from Alcatraz

The granddaddy of prison break movies, Escape from Alcatraz starred Clint Eastwood on top form as grizzled master criminal Frank Morris. Imprisoned on the impenetrable island, Morris has a series of clashes with Patrick McGoohan’s smug warden while, as the title suggests, he attempts to escape from Alcatraz. Eastwood tends to play hard-to-like, anti-heroic characters whose only real redeeming trait is that the people they go up against are worse. As here, Clint’s a bank robber trying to break out of a legitimate prison, this is another situation where we really shouldn’t be on the man’s side, but you just have to respect him for his sheer balls. Who but Dirty Harry could break out of jail with a papier-mâché dummy and a spoon? Awesome.

2. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption has been described as the best film made in the last few decades, and it’s consistently at the head of IMDBs “top 250 films” list as voted for by the public. It’s mostly a good movie but not quite as good as the hype — no film could be. The bad guys are a bit cartoonish. Morgan Freeman’s voiceovers range from inspiring to annoying, and Tim Robbins’ protagonist, Andy Dufresne, is pretty much a blank slate. Yet it’s definitely 100% worth watching for at least one reason: Dufresne’s escape is one of the best executed and most surprising ending in cinema history. It’s unusual for a twist in that it’s not been thrown in for shock value, but is genuinely meaningful and makes the rest of the movie’s message about hope much, much more powerful in retrospect. See it (if for some reason you haven’t) and be sure to bring some tissues for the manly tears…

1. The Great Escape

Most prison and POW movies are very introverted at heart: they are about people struggling against the system, people struggling against their own weaknesses, people struggling with the loneliness of being a convict… That’s why it’s so refreshing that The Great Escape managed to take a true story of a bunch of POWs tunneling out of a WWII era camp and turn it into a full-blown adventure movie instead (though admittedly one with a depressing ending in which practically all the prisoners are all recaptured or killed). From Steve McQueen jumping the wire in an attempt to escape his motorcycle-mounted guards, to the awesome theme music, to the great culture clash scenes in the prison between the American and British prisoners, the movie is full to bursting with great lines and classic moments. Along with the Indiana Jones series, The Great Escape helped to define what fun movie-watching is meant to be about.