Ahead of blockbuster Escape Plan, we pick the best prison break films
The Shawshank Redemption
Despite occasionally topping online polls, Frank Darabont’s 1994 adaptation of Stephen King’s story isn’t the greatest movie of all time. However, it’s much-loved, undeniably stirring and when it pops up on TV of an evening, we defy you not to watch until the weepy climax. Tim Robbins is the banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, Morgan Freeman the wise old inmate who shows him the ropes. It was nominated for seven Oscars but lost them all, mainly to Forrest Gump, but Robbins’s escape remains one of the best twists of its kind. The clue’s in the title of King’s novella: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.
(Football + war) x plucky Tommy getting one over on Jerry = afternoon film heaven. The cast of this 1981 romp, helmed by John Huston and taglined “Their goal was freedom”, combined real-life footballers (Pelé, Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, half the Ipswich Town team) with actors (Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow). When an allied PoW team play the Germans in Paris as a propaganda stunt, the plan is to escape at half-time through a tunnel dug from the sewer system up into the players’ bath. However, our plucky heroes stay and finish the match, making a comeback from 4-1 down – and then escape anyway.
The ultimate bank-holiday film is an all-star ripping yarn based on the true story of a mass breakout from "escape-proof" Stalag Luft III. Produced and directed by John Sturges, it bursts with memorable moments: Charles Bronson’s claustrophobia in the cramped tunnels; Richard Attenborough and Gordon Jackson getting caught out by a Gestapo agent wishing them “good luck”; James Garner guiding the near-blind Donald Pleasence; “Cooler King” Steve McQueen jumping the barbed wire fence on a Triumph motorbike. The theme music is now synonymous with England football fans. A proper crowd-pleaser, despite its downbeat ending, which sees all but three of the PoWs recaptured or killed.
La Grande Illusion
The trailer called the great Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece “a film about the war where you don’t see any fighting or spying”. Not the most enticing sell, perhaps, but this story of class, race and politics told through the lives of officers in a seemingly escape-proof first world war prison fortress is a true timeless classic. Controversial at the time for its anti-war message, it has the distinction of being considered subversive by both the French and the Germans during the second world war. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ordered the print to be seized but it somehow survived and was miraculously rediscovered, restored and re-released in 1999.
Dirty Harry director Don Siegel reunited with Clint Eastwood for this taut 1979 thriller about real-life bank robber Frank Morris, who led the one possibly successful (bodies were never found) escape attempt from the notorious maximum-security prison on San Francisco's Alcatraz Island. The plan hinges on papier-mache dummies, raincoats and spoons, which Eastwood acquires from a kitchen hand by holding up a grubby piece of cutlery and growling: “Can I have another spoon? This one looks like it’s been stickin’ up somebody’s ass.” Patrick McGoohan plays the vindictive warden and Danny Glover makes his screen debut as an inmate.
Ageing Steve McQueen and fresh-faced Dustin Hoffman co-star in this clammy 1973 classic about a French convict with a talent for breaking out of jail but a complete inability to stay escaped. McQueen is the titular safecracker, unjustly sentenced to life in the infamous penal colony on Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana: a sweaty hell of scorching sun, dreadful disease, bug-eating and crocodile-wrestling. Hoffman is the bespectacled forger befriended by Papillon and with whom he plots multiple escapes. McQueen insisted on performing the climactic cliff-jump himself and later called the stunt “one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life”.
Made just eight years after the end of the second world war, this wonderfully witty Broadway adaptation by Billy Wilder tells the story of a group of American airmen interned in an Austrian PoW camp who come to suspect one of their number is a “stoolie” (spy) out to thwart their escape plan. The cast weren’t told the identity of the informant until the last three days of shooting, which added to the film’s atmosphere of tense paranoia. William Holden won an Oscar for his starring role as cynical black marketeer JJ Sefton and gave the shortest acceptance speech in Academy history (“Thank you,” later beaten by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Thanks”).
John Carpenter’s sci-fi thriller is set in the future. Well, 1981’s vision of the future. It’s 1997 and New York’s Manhattan Island has been converted into a maximum-security stockade surrounded by a 50ft “containment wall”. When Air Force One crash-lands and the president is captured by prisoners, special forces soldier-turned-bank-robber Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given 24 hours to get him out. Russell’s dry-witted, one-eyed antihero is the role of a lifetime, while the film’s look – high-tech police state outside, semi-destroyed cityscape inside – was partly created by a young James Cameron, then a special-effects artist, and proved hugely influential.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate…” Often remembered for the queasy scene where the antihero eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour to win a bet, this 1967 cult classic starred Paul Newman as a decorated war veteran defying the sadistic officers in a rural Florida chain-gang prison, escaping multiple times and becoming idolised by his fellow inmates. The role cemented Newman’s status as a cool yet commercial leading man, while George Kennedy won a best supporting actor Oscar for playing prison top dog Dragline, who fights Luke and comes to respect him: “You’re an original, that’s what you are!”
If only the “Peru two” had watched this harrowing 1978 film beforehand. Named after prison slang for an escape attempt, directed by a young Alan Parker and scripted by Oliver Stone, who won an Oscar with his debut screenplay, it tells the true story of American student Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), who gets caught smuggling 2kg of hashish out of Istanbul. He’s incarcerated in a Turkish prison which makes the others on this page look like Center Parcs. Cue brutal beatings, attempted rape, terrifying physical and mental torture, and Billy having a breakdown – but ultimately making a bid for freedom. Grimly great, although it got grief for its portrayal of Turks.