There’s a new prison break drama in cinemas and On Demand called Papillon, starring Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. Most casual moviegoers would be forgiven for not knowing it’s yet another Hollywood remake, this time a revival of an early 1970s Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman drama.
Papillon tells—or, more accurately, retells—the autobiographical story of Henri “Papillon” Charrière, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. During his years behind bars, the tough “Papillon” strikes up an unlikely relationship with a timid counterfeiter Louis Dega, and their begrudging rapport and mutual escape plans form the basis of an unlikely partnership.
The 1973 version of Papillon is hardly an untouchable classic that dare not be remade, but the original film is a sturdy and well-respected ’70s-era picture that holds up pretty well by today’s standards, with a pair of stellar performances by the two leads.
Beginning with the 1973 version—a staple of cable TV during the early days of HBO and a film I must’ve viewed over a dozen times growing up—let’s recount some of the greatest prison break movies.
Epic-scale, emotionally and physically brutal fact-based prison drama of a daring escape from the French penal colony on Devil’s Island. Director Franklin J. Schaffner had recently won the Best Director Oscar for Patton and both Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman were at the peak of their stardom, playing off each other’s opposing personas beautifully. The screenplay is credited to both Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., with an uncredited pass by William Goldman, and though the film runs a tad overlong, its cathartic rewards are numerous.
The Great Escape (1963)
Steven McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough headline this true WWII story of Allied captives who orchestrate a mass breakout from a German prison camp. Supporting inmates include Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. The cheerful motif of Elmer Bernstein’s main title orchestral march should immediately clue you in that the film’s portrayal of life behind bars and barbed wire is decidedly more upbeat and audience-friendly than any other movie on this list.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Clint Eastwood and his trusty Dirty Harry friend and director Don Siegel team up again for a stark and meticulous retelling of the true story of Frank Morris (Eastwood), a high-I.Q. prisoner who devised a daring escaped from “The Rock” with two other inmates in 1962. The greatest escaped inmates in movies are typically measured against the authority of their respective captor figures, and Patrick McGoohan’s chilly turn here as the unnamed Warden makes for a classical and sinister bad guy for Clint to vanquish.
Escape from New York (1981)
This early-1980s John Carpenter/Kurt Russell cult classic offers one of the greatest and most delightfully morbid hooks in B-movie history: Manhattan island in the future is a walled maximum-security penal colony, and our (anti-)hero must break into prison to rescue a stranded President of the United States from the creepy gang-allegiant thugs within.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Despite its cumbersome, mystifying title, Frank Darabont’s transcendent adaptation of a Stephen King non-horror novella has become one of the most beloved films of all time, and it is inarguably the prison escape drama par excellence. The decades-long friendship kindled between Andy (Tim Robbins) and “Red” (Morgan Freeman) forms the emotional crux of the film, but their physical and psychological struggles just wouldn’t matter as much were it not for some spectacular villainy by Bob Gunton as the cruel and obtuse Warden Norton.
When folks nowadays scratch their heads trying to rationalize Forrest Gump as the 1994 Oscar winner for Best Picture, it’s because Gump somehow managed to beat out both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, two unqualified masterpieces of their own brand of cinema, both equally and totally worthy of the highest accolades offered that year or in any other year, and only a quarter-century of hindsight could possibly begin to shed light on the totality of this bewildering travesty of Academy Awards history.