Six Powerful Prison Films Compared
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.” — Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
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 only discovered this movie by accident and what a nice surprise. Unlike the rest of the movies here, it is not centered around movie stars 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. 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 he refuses to be bothered with this.
The movie shows how political shenanigans impact the ability of getting a straight answer. 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.