Friday’s Featured Flick: “Escape from Alcatraz” and the Popularity of the Prison Film


Why are we so fascinated by prison films? After watching this week’s Friday’s Featured Flick, Escape from Alcatraz, I couldn’t help but ask myself this question. I mean, think about it, nobody wants to be behind bars and nobody really roots for the “bad” guys of society, but prison films such as Escape from Alcatraz and even others such as Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption,  are all films that have become pop culture icons and have become the favored films of many! But why?

I think that can be answered in many different ways, most of which is touched upon in Escape from Alcatraz (which dramatizes the story of Frank Morris, who was the only person ever known to lead a successful escape attempt from Alcatraz itself). For one thing, in this film we have the stereotypical cops and warden who bully, suppress, and take away any bit of livelihood and sense of freedom that the helpless prisoners have (I mean, come on law enforcement, give the inmates a break!). Secondly, Frank and his prison buddies just want to live again; they’re not out to murder, to steal, to rob, or rape, they just want to be free (so of course the audience is going to identify with this human right and need). Thirdly, it’s very suspenseful (really, the characters have to get through guards, bars, fortress walls, and the San Francisco Bay to get to freedom, and they may die in the attempt, but they’re going to do it anyway – of course I want to see how this all plays out!). Essentially, these films are about a human being yearning for freedom and battling the obstacles, odds, and inflicted cruelty, to get to that goal. Pair this with the hunky, brooding Clint Eastwood and you’ve got a showstopper – seriously!

Escape from Alcatraz was a good film, but I just couldn’t help but notice how it followed the same structure of most other popular prison films. Again, not that that is a bad thing, but it included the same stereotypes for the law enforcement, an array of inmate characters including the familiar “wise” inmate and thug (in this case, the inmates “English” and “Wolf” respectively), and that overall basic need to escape to freedom. Though I had primarily guessed at how Escape from Alcatraz was going to end (and the inclusion of this same, identifiable story-structure aided this), I still kept watching it, sometimes in deep suspense! Perhaps it was just because it was a good film, but then again, perhaps it’s tapping into all those bits and baubles that every person identifies with in life and I just got sucked into the story because of this.


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