It was Thin Lizzy who sang, “There’s gonna be a jailbreak, somewhere in this town”… the jail, presumably. And on every bank holiday I can remember, we’ve belted out our support for the wrongly imprisoned as they effect their escape on our TV screens from said correctional facility or wartime prison camp. So to celebrate the continuation of this great British tradition, here are my Top 10 break-out hits.
Monday night’s penal-colony drama is based on the bestselling memoir of French thief Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Steve McQueen), incarcerated in 1933 along with squinting forger Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman). The loyal pals attempt a failed escape by boat, via a leper colony, but end up on Devil’s Island, where Papillon has one final crazy plan. A remake with Charlie Hunnam and Mr Robot’s Rami Malek is due later this year.
The Great Escape (1963)
Arguably the best of the Second World War PoW films, John Sturges’s broad Panavision threehour epic combines Yank swagger with British reserve and Aussie spirit, as Dickie Attenborough and fellow tunnellers make repeated attempts to get to Switzerland. It doesn’t matter if you can remember whether the “Forger”, the “Mole” or the “Manufacturer” make it. This will always be the “Cooler King” of prison break films, to borrow Steve McQueen’s nickname – and Elmer Bernstein’s theme tune still stirs the blood.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
“Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free” went the gloopy tagline to this decidedly non-supernatural adaptation of a Stephen King short story. The generic poster was one reason why the Frank Darabont-directed prison yarn wound up with a criminally bad box-office record. A period saga beginning in the 1940s, in which Morgan Freeman’s lifer helps Tim Robbins’s banker to play a long waiting game, it finally found an enthusiastic audience on video, where it became an all-time modern classic.
Escape from New York (1981)
The best prison break-in is set in the distant future – ahem, 1997, when the island of Manhattan has been converted into a maximum security lock-up by way of a 50-foot wall patrolled by helicopters. When Air Force One is hijacked and Donald Pleasence’s President taken hostage, Kurt Russell’s surly ex-soldier Snake is sent in to retrieve him – except he’s fitted with explosives that will blow out his arteries if he fails. The sporting likes of Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef and Isaac Hayes help, hassle and hunt Snake on his mission. Director John Carpenter deserved a spell in solitary for his 1996 sequel, Escape from LA.
Chicken Run (2000)
A barnstormingly affectionate spoof of The Great Escape, Aardman’s first feature-length plasticineaganza pulled in Mel Gibson to voice Rocky the Rhode Island Red. As the cocky cockerel who crash-lands inside the barbed wire of a Yorkshire poultry farm, he leads the chicken inmates in a daring escape via a contraption that Gromit’s pal Wallace would have thought cracking. Julia Sawalha is Ginger, the plucky clay equivalent of Steve McQueen’s Cooler King, whose stints in solitary hint at battery farming.
Con Air (1997)
The Jailbird is a prison plane transferring some pretty repellent recidivists to a “supermax” joint in this Jerry Bruckheimer-produced blockbuster: Cyrus the Virus (John Malkovich), the Marietta Mangler (Steve Buscemi, complete with Hannibal Lecter face-mask) and Diamond Dog (Ving Rhames), to name but a few. Poor Nic Cage is the homeward-bound parolee caught up in their escape. His threat involving his daughter’s toy, “Put… the bunny… back… in the box” has become a much-quoted classic.
Take the Money and Run (1969)
When habitual criminal Virgil Starkwell holds up a bank in this uproarious early Woody Allen spoof, he’s thwarted by the shoddy handwriting on the threatening note he hands to a teller. His attempt to get out of jail by carving a bar of soap into a fake gun goes south when it turns into suds in the rain. His time on a chain gang is equally fraught: as a punishment, he is “locked in a sweatbox with an insurance salesman” and a slapstick escape sees the shackled prisoners run in opposite directions.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Paul Newman matches Steve McQueen for inmate cool in this Florida prison-farm allegory for political rebellion (catchphrase: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”). It’s set in the early 1950s but tuned to the upheavals of the late 60s. Luke thumbs his nose at the system and is regularly locked in “the box” for his trouble. In one of cinema’s most famous sequences, he inspires the other prisoners by eating 50 hardboiled eggs in an hour. And forced to miss his mother’s funeral, he escapes and throws the bloodhounds off his scent with curry powder.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
A landmark of French cinema, this First World War classic from Jean Renoir also happens to be a cracking prison-camp adventure in which two captured French airmen (working-class Jean Gabin, aristocratic Pierre Fresnay) are transferred to a Colditz-like mountain fortress run by Erich von Stroheim, where they stage an elaborate dash for the Swiss border. It’s as much a critique of class and war as it is a great escape.
Danger Within (1959)
Co-written by Bryan Forbes, who also directed Japanese-camp classic King Rat and popped up in PoW perennial The Colditz Story, this plucky wartime caper, boasting two big escapes (the second under cover of a performance of Hamlet), is also a whodunnit linked to a mole – no, not that kind, although there are tunnels. It blends the derring-do of The Wooden Horse with the intrigue of Agatha Christie, and stars Richard Todd, Dickie Attenborough and Bernard Lee as the indefatigable escape committee.