It didn’t happen immediately, but in the years after its release, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption found its way onto every film lover’s list of favorites. Though nominated for seven Oscars, Best Picture among them, it didn’t take home a single statue. Perhaps it was the confusing title, or the fierce competition in what was a memorable year in film. Or maybe it’s because it was a prison movie.
By the time Darabont took his seat in the director’s chair again five years later, we were excited to see what he’d turned out. Shawshank had become a classic by then, airing regularly on TNT since 1997 (Ted Turner had acquired Castle Rock in 1993). Once again, it was a seminal year for the cinema. 1999 had already given us the likes of American Beauty, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense. The list goes on and on. And then, on December 10th of that year—twenty years ago today—Darbont’s new film arrived on the big screen. The Green Mile did considerably better than Shawshank at the box office, yielding $286 million worldwide (Shawshank only made about $28 million). It was another adaptation of a Stephen King work, and another period film set in a prison. But as Shawshank has endured in our hearts and minds as the beloved movie it deserves to be, The Green Mile is largely forgotten. It’s never discussed as ‘90s great, let alone a film for the ages. When considering all the releases of that year, there’s none more emotionally affecting than the Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan-starrer. It’s a beautifully made film—deliberately paced, wonderfully acted, and it’s driven home by a waterworks-inducing string-heavy Thomas Newman score.
No, it’s not better than Shawshank. Where that film is about hope and delivers an exclamation point of an ending that leaves you cheering while wiping the tears from your face, The Green Mile’s finale is downbeat. It’s a somber movie about regret and punishment. In some ways, it’s a Christ story, though the allegory is an imperfect one, where the Messianic figure is burdened by his gift. He lays down his life to be free of the suffering, not to bear it. Still, through his suffering, others are healed. And, in the end, Hanks’ Paul Edgecomb lives on, at 108-years-old, awaiting death, believing he remains as a consequence for letting John Coffey (Duncan)—a miracle from God—die.
The Green Mile is an introspective film. It causes us to reflect, to ponder the choices we’ve made, to wonder which ones will have the longest lasting repercussions. It’s a movie about death—the fear of it, the release of it. But it’s still a prison movie. And the prison movie, over many decades of cinema, has become a genre in itself.
Sometimes a mere setting for the narrative, other times a character in the tale, prison is pervasive in film. And a curious mechanism it is. Why, in a medium offering escapism, would confinement ever be an option? Truly, the prison movie is not a genre—or even a subgenre—because each film employing its bars and walls tends to take a piece of another genre with it. There’s the prison musical (Chicago), the prison actioner (No Escape), the prison comedy (Take the Money and Run). Some are about escape plotting (Escape from Alcatraz). Others are about creative reform (The Mustang). Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful used prison in concentration camp form to reveal the horrors the Holocaust wrought. Cool Hand Luke is a classic prison drama with shades of a comedy. Bronson is an arthouse prison biopic with shades of a comedy. Has there been a better sports prison drama than The Longest Yard? Or a better father-son prison drama than Starred Up (or another one, for that matter)?
The fact is, incarceration is quite common in film. When you consider the mental institution, it expands even further. In this category we have the great One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Shutter Island, and, so the ladies don’t feel left out, Girl Interrupted. In series form, we’ve had Prison Break, Oz, the massively popular Orange is the New Black, and the excellent The Night Of.
Again, the question: why? Why do they make this stuff? And why do we go out and see it, or sit back on our couch devoting hours of time binging? Movies and television ought to allow us opportunity to forget about our world and its problems in a defiant act of sluggish respite. And yet, the imprisonment of others is perfectly acceptable as entertaining art in which to lose ourselves. Let’s examine just three (very different) films to better understand why prison is so often visited—and works so well—as a story device: The Great Escape, Raising Arizona, and, to honor its twentieth anniversary, The Green Mile.
The two finest wartime prison camp movies ever made are The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. The former is darker, more haunting, as its clandestine plotting builds toward a tense, explosive, and rather shocking finale. John Sturges’ 1963 film, on the other hand, plays like a puzzle that becomes an action film in the third act. An ensemble as thrilling and watchable as any World War II movie, The Great Escape’s problem to be solved is presented almost immediately. Locked in a German POW camp for Allied officers, Richard Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett has a mind to break hundreds of these men out, but to do it in innovative, precisely executed fashion. The movie is little else than planning, culminating in the escape attempt and the aftermath. Each of its characters, mostly British but for three Americans, Charles Bronson as a Polish refugee, and James Coburn as an unconvincing Australian, emerges with attributes all his own. It’s a film about personalities as much as it’s about strategy. Even its ending credit sequence runs through each cast member and his nickname—“The Mole,” “The Tunnel King,” “The Cooler King,” etc. Why The Great Escape works as a thoroughly riveting piece of cinema worthy of repeat viewings is its pacing and its purpose (and Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score). While each officer is written uniquely, none has particularly significant depth. Because it’s not about that. This is no character study, but rather, a story populated by characters putting the pieces together. It progresses toward something, the plot taking shape, the audience along for the ride, rooting for these guys to outsmart the Germans en route to a cunningly precarious liberation, we hope.
The Great Escape uses prison as a complex hurdle—a labyrinth in need of thoughtful problem solving. Germans are the bad guys, to be sure, but the true villain is the prison. How to defeat it is the film’s conflict. The treat is watching the process, little by little: digging the tunnels, emptying the dirt in the yard, finding wood, forging identification papers, etc. The movie’s third act, once 76 men bust out, is the most exhilarating. Once a film about strategizing now becomes one of survival. Tasked with evading the Gestapo patrolling the country, the escapees will do whatever necessary to avoid capture. Diverse transportation takes center stage. James Garner’s Lt. Hendley (with a blind Donald Pleasence in tow) steals a plane, Coburn takes a bicycle, Bronson a boat. But the movie is taken over by Steve McQueen. His Captain Hilts opts for the most audacious method of fleeing the Reich. He wipes out a Wehrmacht motorcycle troop, assumes his identity, and ultimately leads his hunters on a hair-raising chase toward the Swiss border.
The movie is many things, but it’s a prison flick through and through, and one of the most satisfying ones ever made thanks to how it utilizes that component.
Twenty-four years later, Joel and Ethan Coen made their second feature film. Following the Texas noir Blood Simple, they went a little nutty and delivered Raising Arizona in 1987. Having seen each and every Coen movie multiple times, this one remains my favorite. It’s hysterically funny, consistently weird, and a meaningful study of wicked temptation’s appeal to the human heart. Prison is only the setting in spurts, but it’s a major player. Always hovering over the head of our hapless protagonist, H.I. McDunnouh—played by Nicolas Cage in a top five performance (no joke)—looming like a hideous monster, is the state penitentiary. He’s had a history of incarceration and through it, he’s met his wife—a police officer named Ed, played by an amusingly offbeat Holly Hunter. Once he’s out for good, H.I. struggles to live any sort of normal American life. Holding down a job is tough. Every convenience store beckons as if to say, “Here I am, rob me.” And, worst of all, Ed can’t conceive. From that point forward, nearly every choice made by the pair is an illegal one. They swipe a baby out of a batch of quintuplets birthed by a wealthy family and pretend they’ve adopted him. H.I. steals some diapers and leads police (and every dog in town) on a wild foot/car chase. He later harbors a pair of fugitive friends, then assaults his boss. The man simply cannot conform to society, and now he’s converted his wife from the other side of the law.
The pervasive thought occupying his mind is this: maybe prison is where I belong. This notion is at the film’s very core. There are some of us just born bad—some who don’t belong in a society of do-gooders. And our protagonist might be one of these folks. Only in the end, in the movie’s climactic dream sequence, do the Coens suggest he might just find a way to fit after all. It’s not going to be easy, but if the hope of a prosperous existence is attainable, he and Ed must work together, buck against the lure of criminality, and recognize that more fulfilling days could await them if they do. It’s perhaps the most contemplative, solemn conclusion to a screwball comedy ever made, and it juxtaposes freedom with captivity. The former is clearly greater, so why take conscious steps toward the latter? For the majority of us, this is hardly a concern. H.I., by comparison, is an addict, enslaved to the drug of lawbreaking, at times believing the lie that it provides a refuge. The Coens’ sophomore effort is a brilliant comedy because it’s got something to say about the human condition. And it uses prison as an antagonistic motif—a half dreaded, half welcomed consequence. It’s the place our protagonist finds love, and the place he may very well belong. Raising Arizona is a prison romance.
In 1999, when The Green Mile hit theaters, Tom Hanks was at the apex of his career. With this film, he wrapped up a decade’s worth of movies better than any actor’s since Marlon Brando’s 1950s, or Humphrey Bogart’s 1940s. Darabont places his characters in a world of gloom, fear, and reflection. Hanks and the death row guards didn’t know these condemned souls when they were hurting and killing innocents; they only know them as men preparing to meet their Maker. Save for Sam Rockwell’s unhinged William “Wild Bill” Wharton, these are men far removed from the barbarians they once were. And one of them—John Coffey—never exhibited violence at all.
Prison is used in the film as a final stop before death. It’s the last place these inmates will call home, and it’s the place our protagonist calls work. Told in flashback, as the 108-year-old Paul looks back on his time there, incarceration is literal to the prisoners, metaphorical to the elderly Paul. His body will not quit, despite his longing for departure from this earth. In a life defined by imprisonment, he lives out his days trapped in a place he doesn’t want to be. It’s not even a sort of penance for his actions some sixty years earlier, but a sentence, he believes. Had he protected John Coffey better—fought harder for him—maybe he’d have been granted the release that will not come. In one of the film’s most affecting scenes, Paul speaks with Coffey about the latter’s imminent execution. Paul can’t bear the thought of one day standing before God and having to explain to Him how he killed a man as good, as miraculous as Coffey. Even though Coffey seems to acquit him of this culpability in the moment, the action still haunts Paul.
The Green Mile’s power is not just in its tearjerking sequences, but in themes it leaves you with. In a society that has popularized phrases like “No regrets,” and “I wouldn’t change a thing,” here we find a man who has seen everyone else in his world die. Living out his days in a nursing home, he’s very much alone—just he and his thoughts, and Mr. Jingles, the ancient mouse whom Coffey resurrected many years ago. “If he could make a mouse live so long,” old Paul ponders, “how much longer do I have?” There is no more atonement to be made for those who have passed on. Paul simply must watch more folks leave him behind, wondering when this retribution will end. It’s a potently somber conclusion to a movie already steeped in pathos. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we probably relate more to Paul than most other protagonists, though they are uncommon on film. Guilt, shame, regret. These strongholds are sometimes earned, though for many burdened with such things, they needn’t be. The fact is, we’ve all done some thing, made some choice we wish we hadn’t. The greater the consequence, the longer lasting the regret. We all imprison ourselves.
Incarceration is so effective in art because it can be employed in a myriad of ways, and in every genre. When a setting or a character, it’s often a brutal affair—a savage beast. When a theme, it resonates vigorously. A deterrent to bad behavior in the real world, jail serves another purpose in the hands of the capable artist. Only there does it make for an alluring invitation. Occasionally an endurance test more than raucous entertainment, the prison movie offers the amenable consumer what it seldom does the inmate: escape.