Something about prison escapes gets me excited. Maybe it is from watching too much Oz (I am currently working my way through it… and I will just say wowsers… graphic stuff) or the thrill of the escape attempts but man do I love films that give me the break down of how something like this is done. Escape from Alcatraz is one of the most iconic escape films ever made. I can now see why.
Clint Eastwood plays a real life prisoner of Alcatraz, Frank Morris. He and his co-conspirators were the only ones to ever escape Alcatraz alive. His process was slow, very slow. This film takes its time. There are no montages, no speeding up of process. Each chink of the cement that Frank Morris does is felt. But what is more interesting is not the escape but how the prisoners are treated while confined to such a horrible place. At one point a prisoner’s paints are taken away from him. This is the only thing that keeps him sane, that keeps him alive. In retaliation he cuts off his fingers. The ways people stay sane are remarkable. How does one think it is okay to keep a rat in your pocket at all times? Only when you have been locked up for an extended amount of time do you realize that having any sort of companion is better than having no companion at all. The corrosion of people’s minds when incarcerated is mind-boggling. Yes these are people who have done bad things, but does it really mean that they are only able to exercise for an hour a day, not be able to pick out the books they want to read or be stuck in a small cell all by yourself day in and day out. Of course someone like Frank Morris would turn his attention to escaping if put under these circumstances.
Escape from Alcatraz is probably not the best prison escape film I have ever seen, but it is certainly one of the most influential. All you have to do is look at Shawshank Redemption. That film took so much from Escape that it is almost like a fairytale version of the same film. (Frank Morris was never found again, presumed drown and my guess is that he never had a buried treasure put somewhere by a magical black man.) Even Oz takes its cues from Escape. The older man, Litmus, could have easily been the older man in Oz given a few more social interactions in his time. It is fascinating to see how these films go about accomplishing the same goal: humanizing prisoners. When we look at famous murder case or even a case that we may be sitting on the jury bench for, all we see is the crime. But we forget that these men are human and are more than just the crime they commit. Yes Frank Morris may have gotten caught for burglary, but that does not take away from the fact that he was a very resourceful and smart man who felt for his fellow inmates.