Entertainment & Living

Our time behind bars: 12 favorite prison movies

The new Spike reality series Jail: Big Texas, beginning 8 p.m. Saturday, got us thinking about some of our favorite prison movies. There are many incarnations of incarceration films, and here are a few favorites:

1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) — Considered by many to be not only the best prison movie of all time but one of the best movies period, this uplifting story, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, about the friendship that develops between two inmates has been known to make grown men cry. View the trailer here.

2. Escape From Alcatraz (1979) — Clint Eastwood starred in this tense, ripped-from-real-life thriller about three guys who escaped the infamous maximum-security prison in the Bay Area. View the trailer.

3. Cool Hand Luke (1967) — Paul Newman charms as the new, maverick member of a rural Southern chain gang who refuses to succumb to the cruelty around him. It’s a feast of fine performances and it was no surprise that Newman would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and George Kennedy would win for Supporting Actor. The film also contains one of the most memorable lines in movie history: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” delivered first by Strother Martin, the prison “Captain,” and later by Newman. View the trailer.

4. Midnight Express (1978) — If the two words “Turkish prison” didn’t terrify you before the release of this film, they certainly did afterward. Based on a true story of an American college student thrown into jail for drug smuggling and directed by Alan Parker (Pink Floyd The Wall, Mississippi Burning) from a script by Oliver Stone, it’s not particularly subtle but it’s effective all the same. View the trailer.

5. The Great Escape (1963) — Steve McQueen led a strong cast (Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance, James Garner among them) in a film about a group of American POWs in WWII who refuse to become comfortable with their confinement. It’s nearly three hours long but doesn’t feel like it. View the trailer.

6. Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985) — William Hurt and Raul Julia play two very different South American men. One is a gay man put in jail for immorality and the other is a political prisoner. But they come to understand each other after sharing a cell. Hurt won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal. View the trailer.

7. Escape From New York (1981) — All of Manhattan has been turned into a prison and Kurt Russell (wearing an eye patch) is just the man to play a guy who’s going to bust out. It’s directed by John Carpenter, features effects from James Cameron, and co-stars Isaac Hayes. What more do you need to know? View the trailer.

8. Hunger (2008) — Well before actor Michael Fassbender became part of the X-Men universe and director Steve McQueen made 12 Years a Slave, they collaborated on this film about the imprisonment of Irish Republican Army leader Bobby Sands who famously went on a hunger strike. The film became a sensation at film festivals around the world and laid the foundation for the careers Fassbender and McQueen have today. View the trailer.

9. The Rock (1996) — One of the better films from director Michael Bay, this action movie about guys who break into Alcatraz to stop a madman is fast and funny. Having Sean Connery, Ed Harris and Nicolas Cage in his prime all in one cast doesn’t hurt, either. View the trailer.

10. Con Air (1997) — A bunch of convicts on a plane. What could go wrong? Plenty, when they decide to hijack it. As with The Rock, the cast — Ving Rhames, John Malkovich, Dave Chappelle, Steve Buscemi, John Cusack, and, yes, Nicolas Cage, help the Jerry Bruckheimer film soar. View the trailer.

11. Starred Up (2013) and 12. A Prophet (2009) — Here are two foreign films that many Americans may not have seen but are certainly worth the effort to find. The British Starred Up features a gripping performance from Jack O’Connell (who would go on to star in Unbroken and Money Monster) as a violent 19-year-old sent to adult prison where he reunites with his dad (played by the always reliable Ben Mendelsohn). The equally galvanizing French film A Prophet, which follows an Arab youth as he becomes a kingpin inside prison, was nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar.

View Starred Up trailer

View A Prophet trailer

13. The Longest Yard (1974) — Yes, it’s a football movie and a comedy, but the original Longest Yard also captures the desperation and danger inside the walls of a maximum security prison. Burt Reynolds stars as disgraced former QB Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, who must convince a team of “convicts” to play against the guards’ semi-pro squad. The sadistic warden (Eddie Albert, Green Acres) gives Crewe no choice, so he convinces the inmates to unleash years of resentment on the field. James Hampton, who grew up in Dallas, shines as Caretaker, the crafty team manager who helps Crewe build the Mean Machine.

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