Six Powerful Prison Films Compared

“Calling it your job don’t make it right, Boss.” — Cool Hand Luke

A prison yard. Photo by Larry Farr on Unsplash

I’ve long been a fan of Cool Hand Luke, the epic prison film starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy. Like all great films, there are memorable scenes and memorable lines, including this one by the prison captain: “What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”

Paul Newman is Luke Jackson, who ends up with a two year sentence for a meaningless crime. His story becomes a metaphor for the existential hero who refuses to accept things as they are and is inwardly determined to be free from the constraints of existence. I’ve watched the film several times over the years and find it to be the perfect expression of existential philosophy, which was very much in vogue in the decades after WW2.

With this film as a gold standard of prison films, here are several more flicks to add to the Prison Films canon.

Cell Block 19 (1954)

I recently discovered this movie by accident and what a nice surprise. Unlike the rest of the movies here, it is not centered around movie star heroes but rather a gritty story about a prison riot. When COVID-19 resulted in lockdowns around the world, there were numerous prison riots that soon followed, hence this 1954 movie caught my attention earlier this year.

Inhumane prison conditions ultimately prompt inmates at a prison to take action. In this film they successfully take over one of the cell blocks and hold a number of guards hostage, hoping to negotiate with the prison warden, who is between a rock and a hard place. To give the prisoners what they want requires the governor’s endorsement and the guv refuses to be bothered with this.

The movie shows how political shenanigans impact the ability of getting a straight answer or fair treatment. It also shows how the media can make a difference, because as a result of the takeover of Cell Block 19, the press gives ear to the prisoners’ peeves, which has an influence on public opinion. The appalling circumstances in the prison are no longer hidden and the public can put pressure on the governor.

There are other features of the film of note, one being the manner in which there are differences of opinion on what to do now that the mob rules. One faction is more fatalistic and doesn’t have qualms about killing the guards they hold hostage. The other insists that the moral high ground is with the prisoners if they treat the hostages with respect in order to achieve the goal of more human prison conditions.

It’s not too much of a stretch to observe that these two opposing attitudes are being played out right now on our streets.

Trivia: Walter Wanger, who produced this film, had just done time in prison (four months) and wanted to make a film that showed what prison conditions are really like. As a result, the film is less slick in production but packs a punch for its eye-opening storyline.

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Paul Newman as Luke Jackson.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

The only thing I have to add here are these two anecdotes. While driving to Hibbing a number of years ago, I picked up a hitchhiker. As it turns out, he had just gotten out of prison and was in the process of getting a Minnesota residency so he could get a job as a cabby. He had an interesting story. He’d been framed by the police who claimed he had 5000 hits of LSD and was a dealer. He did have LSD, but never saw 5000 hits of acid in his life.

The second tale is how I spent a year in Puerto Rico in 1979 during which time I visited the Bayamon Prison once a week. I was assisting Bruce Fowler, a prison chaplain who was nicknamed “The Prisoner’s Friend.” So many stories, so little time. A lot of good-hearted people were behind those walls, people with the same hopes and dreams as you and I.

Papillon (1973)

This is a powerful account of one man’s escape from a prison on Devil’s Island. Henri Charriere (Steve McQueen) and his friend Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) are two prisoners whose friendship carries them through a series of horrendous life experiences. Like Luke Jackson, Steve McQueen early on realizes this place is not for him. Either he must escape or die trying.

My memories of this film are more about Hoffman and McQueen, and that the story had impact. There are things that are best not experienced in real life. The title come from the French word for butterfly, the tattoo that Steve McQueen wears and which becomes his nickname.

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Runaway Train (1985)

This film stars Jon Voigt, another existential hero type. Voigt is one of those prisoners who refuses to be confined, is determined to break free. He’s escaped twice before from other prisons and this one is supposed to be the end of the line. Nevertheless, he finds a way and a younger prisoner (Eric Roberts) who idolizes him tags along. It is the dead of winter and up here in the Northland the weather can be pretty inhospitable.

The two manage to jump on a train that is leaving a railway yard but one that has bad luck written on it. That is, as the train leaves the station the engineer has a heart attack. The train, picking up speed, is heading east and it becomes a very wild ride. The two figure out that something is not quite right, and they work their way forward to try to reach the engine. They soon discover that there’s someone else on the train, a female railway worker (Rebecca DeMornay).

The train itself becomes a character in the film, and if you like trains, the film is especially fantastic. Some detractors may have issues with some of the storyline cliches. I overlook that.

Trivia: Djordje Milicevic, who wrote the screenplay for this film, also wrote Iron Will, another Northland winter film. As an extra in two scenes, it was my first “up close and personal” experience with Hollywood.

Andy and Red, doin’ time. (Public domain)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

This is the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) as told through the eyes of Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). It is the top-rated movie of all time on, based on viewer rankings. As with Papillon, it is a story of two men bonding within a context of oppression and injustice. It’s also about what it means to be human.

One reviewer at says that renting the movie is a waste of money because you will have to rent it again. “Buy it.” He also said it is the best film that never got an Oscar, though it did receive seven nominations.

Morgan Freeman, like all our favorite stars, has an amazing ability to project warmth and that “special something” that makes you want to spend time with him. Was it Driving MIss Daisy that put him on the map? Shawshank sealed the deal that he was a force for good in Hollywood. Writing about all this makes me want to see it again, of course. And so I will look for it.

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When I saw that there had been a Papillon remake, I questioned its validity. How could you re-do this classic. Afterwards, I conceded. This is a great remake.


I’d forgotten that in addition to being a story revealing the horrors of Devil’s Island, it was also an injustice that put Henri Charriere (Charlie Hunnam) into this hell-hole, wrongly convicted for murder. Rami Malek plays the Dustin Hoffman character in this version. In addition, it’s based on the bok which Charriere wrote after his escape. In other words, the film is based on a true story.

The amount of time Charriere suffered was far longer than I’d remembered, though it’s near 50 years since I saw the original. Suffering, in a film, is relatively brief… two to three hours at most. In real life, it’s near impossible to imagine what people have gone through. I think here of the POWs who were caged and tortured in the Hanoi Hilton.

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EndNote: I saw first-hand some very dark things inside Bayamon Prison, but Bayamon was actually a good prison compared to what I heard about others, one of which was nicknamed Satan’s Synagogue. That is a place you just don’t want to go. And then there was my visit to the prison in Monterrey. The old man we brought food to was living in Hell.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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