One of the most complex genres of film, the prison movie verges from outright ruthlessness and violence, to unlikely friendships, patience, diligence and inmates ‘finding themselves’. We hate some movie prisoners and love others, we hope for some and despair for others, and we think of the real lives of some in institutions such as those in Jail Exchange and forget about others. Here’s our top ten Prison Films of all time:
1. The Shawshank Redemption
Not just the finest prison film but one of the greatest films of any genre. A story of hope and friendship between Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman), with an ending that is still as shockingly heart warming now it was 20 years ago when the film was released. As one critic said, if you don’t like it you’re beyond redemption.
2. Cool Hand Luke
Paul Newman’s Luke is a non-conformist, anti-establishment but undeniably cool prisoner who refuses to yield to authority. Probably the only film on the list where the main protagonist is jailed for damaging parking meters, Newman’s Oscar-nominated Luke is an unforgettable bad-boy who becomes a bastion of hope for the other prisoners.
3. Starred Up
The most recent film on the list (2013), this critically-acclaimed drama explores prison from a more unlikely angle – families. Violent young offender Jack O’Connell plays Eric, who arrives in an adult prison and faces a confrontation with his own father – and is unsure whether he will protect him or destroy him as life worsens in a film which received 99% positive feedback from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Michael Fassbender lost 42lbs for this movie depicting life in the infamous maze prison in Northern Ireland, and more specifically the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands which saw 10 men die. The only political prison drama on the list, Hunger is famous for a 17-minute unbroken shot regarded as a movie great, where a priest tries to convince Sands to give up the strike.
Another real-life story, and although the infamous hellraiser recently told the Daily Mail that he has changed his ways this fictionalised biopic of a prisoner who has spent almost his entire life in solitary confinement combines comedy and carnage to interesting effect. The real Bronson was so impressed when meeting lead actor Tom Hardy that he even shaved off his moustache so that it could be made into a fake moustache for the film.
6. Green Mile
Some say this is even better than its spiritual brother Shawshank. A supernatural thriller which also derived from the works of Stephen King, memorable for the depiction of John Coffey by Michael Clarke Duncan who plays the gentle giant with magical powers to perfection.
The most brutal film on the list portraying the harsh life for inmates inside a British 1970s borstal, and the movie that launched Ray Winston’s career. So harsh that it was dropped for television, the film is a violent but eminently quotable classic with a dismal ending.
8. Birdman of Alcatraz
The antithesis to this list of aggressive and belligerent leads, Burt Lancaster’s introverted Birdman Robert Stroud starts his career as a world class ornithologist when curing a poorly bird that flies into his cell. Based on a true story, this is one of Lancaster’s defining roles.
9. The Great Escape
The 1963 classic starring Steve McQueen as the ‘Cooler King’ Virgil Hilts celebrates spirit and will to succeed, even if there is a tragic ending. A stellar cast and McQueen’s motorbike endeavours make this a dose of escapism to relish.
10. The Rock
We forget how hot Nicolas Cage’s career became in the mid to late-90s, and although this blockbuster was completely ludicrous (it is a Michael Bay film after all) no-one can deny the excitement and ingenuity of breaking into Alcatraz with the help of grizzled ex-jailbird Sean Connery.