In this article:
- With the United States having the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, it’s no surprise that prison has become a major theme in the American cinematic tradition.
- Some of the greatest movies in Hollywood history have used prison as their setting. Movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Escape from Alcatraz will teach you hard life lessons about freedom and the human spirit.
- While you’re watching these prison movies, don’t forget how lucky you are that you’re sitting at home and not in a prison cell.
According to a 2019 study conducted by researchers at Cornell University, nearly 45% of Americans have a close relative who has gone to prison. That’s not surprising when you consider that the United States consistently has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.
It seems that doing time is just a part of American culture at this point, so it’s no wonder prison has become a major theme in American cinema as well.
Prison movies remind us of the hardships faced by those who are currently locked up and those who have previously been through the system. And they also make us a little bit more thankful for our own freedom.
If you’re lucky enough to be sitting at your laptop right now and not in a prison cell, toss a bag of popcorn in the microwave and fire up your favorite streaming service.
The Greatest Prison Moves in American Cinematic History
1. The Shawshank Redemption
You simply can’t talk about prison movies without mentioning the 1994 classic The Shawshank Redemption. This film is not only one of the best prison movies ever made but is also considered by many to be the greatest movie of all time.
The movie, which is based on the 1982 novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, follows the story of banker Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins. Dufresne is sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, despite his claims of innocence.
While in prison, Dufresne befriends a contraband smuggler named Red (Morgan Freeman) and carves out his own lane in prison life by helping the prison staff and the warden with financial matters.
After one of Dufresne’s friends, Tommy Williams, is murdered by the prison staff, he launches a plan to escape from prison and expose the money laundering scheme that the warden has been running for years.
The Shawshank Redemption is a work of pure genius that features an amazing and inspiring storyline and some of the greatest acting performances of all time.
2. Cool Hand Luke
Another absolute classic in the prison genre is the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, which is based on Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel of the same name. The film centers on the character of Luke (Paul Newman), a decorated World War II veteran who is arrested for cutting parking meters down one night when he was blind drunk.
When he arrives in prison, he refuses to give in to the established hierarchy among prisoners or to tolerate the abuse dealt out by the prison guards despite enduring extreme physical punishment from both sides.
After a failed escape attempt, Luke becomes a scapegoat for the prison guards (who beat him mercilessly at every opportunity) and becomes a sort of martyr figure for the other prisoners. Eventually, Luke is able to make a successful escape, but is quickly discovered by the police in a church.
Cool Hand Luke is an anti-establishment film that expressed many of the sentiments of the American people during the Vietnam War. It’s also a fantastic performance by Paul Newman and his supporting cast and a gut-wrenching story about the endurance of the human spirit.
Sometimes, the most fantastic stories are true. The unbelievable life story of Charles Bronson, dubbed “Britain’s most violent criminal,” is detailed in the 2008 biopic Bronson.
This strange and slightly psychedelic film stars Tom Hardy, who delivers a remarkable performance as Bronson. The film begins with Bronson’s violent childhood, details his introduction to the British prison system, and recounts how he came to gain global renown for his in-prison antics.
Bronson is all about the titular character acting like a general maniac, beating the daylight out of prison guards, participating in bare-knuckle boxing matches, committing robberies in the name of love, and eventually finding a passion for the arts.
It’s a weird and incredible story that’s difficult to comprehend to the sane mind. Bronson is also one of the best performances of Tom Hardy’s career, one which he prepared for by talking on the phone with the real Charles Bronson.
4. Escape From Alcatraz
The 1979 thriller Escape from Alcatraz is also based on real-life events. Namely, the miraculous escape in 1962 of three prisoners from Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island-locked prison that was believed to be inescapable.
The film stars Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, a high-IQ prisoner convicted of bank robbery and burglary, among other crimes. Once he arrives in prison, Morris immediately starts making friends and eventually is reconnected with Clarence and John Anglin, two fellow bank robbers that Morris knew before he was arrested.
Reunited with his old friends, Morris begins hatching a plan to escape the island. The three men place dummy heads made of plaster in their beds to fool the night guards, escape their cells, and float away from the island on a makeshift raft.
Despite a massive manhunt that ensues the next morning, the prisoners are never found. Escape from Alcatraz is an amazing dramatic portrayal of one of the greatest crime mysteries in American history. This is a movie that’s definitely worth a watch both for its historical and cinematic value.
5. American History X
A deeply disturbing and yet heartwarming film, American History X brings the audience inside the mind of a prominent neo-Nazi whose hateful beliefs are questioned when he befriends a black man in prison.
Edward Norton delivers a harrowing and brilliant performance as Derek Vinyard in the film. This movie, which debuted in 1998, is all about trying to understand the institutions that can lead people to live lives of hate and violence.
Derek is put in prison for killing two black men who attempted to steal his truck. Once incarcerated, Derek is first confronted by the Aryan Brotherhood gang, but soon becomes aggravated with prison politics and finds that his only true friend is a black man named Lamont.
Derek’s relationship with Lamont causes him to rethink his hateful beliefs and renounce his neo-Nazi lifestyle once he is released. Now, he must also save his younger brother from following in his hateful path.
American History X will make you shrivel in terror and give you the courage to stand up against injustice.
Along with the movies above, there are many other amazing prison movies that are totally worth watching. Here’s a quick list of other prison movies to check out if you’d already burned through the top five:
- The Green Mile (1999)
- Papillon (1973)
- Dead Man Walking (1995)
- Starred Up (2013)
- A Prophet (2009)