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The Prison in Cinema
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6    by Dr. Paul Mason -- page 1 of 6

Convict James Allen (Paul Muni) gets his chains checked
I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.

The prison film genre is notoriously difficult to define; however, paradoxically, many prison movies stick in the memory. One such movie is I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), based on the real life experiences of Robert Burns, as recorded in his book I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! The film depicts the harrowing experiences of James Allen (Paul Muni), who escapes the chain gang only to live in constant fear of being captured. In a powerful final scene, Allen says a last goodbye to the woman he loves, Helen (Helen Vinson):

Allen: But I haven't escaped. They're still after me. They'll always be after me. I've had jobs, but I can't keep them -- something happens, someone turns up. I hide in rooms all day and travel by night: no friends, no rest, no peace. Keep moving -- that's all that's left for me. Forgive me, Helen. I had to take a chance to see you tonight, just to say goodbye.

Helen: Oh, Jim. It was all gonna be so different.

Allen: It is different. They've made it different. (Hears a noise and, startled, whispers.) I've gotta go.

Helen: I can't let you go like this. Can't you tell me where you're going? (Shakes his head.) Will you write? (Shakes head again.) Do you need any money? (Shakes head, backing away from her and staring wildly.) But you must, Jim. How do you live?

He disappears into the darkness and hisses.

Allen: I steal.

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

View an animated GIF and hear a sound clip of the movie's final scene (21 frames, 98KB).

Fifteen years later, Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) offered an equally bleak representation of prison life. Among the movie's many scenes of brutality is the death of a prison informer: a group of inmates carrying blow torches force him into the pit of a drop hammer. Naturally, the hammer falls and the guards need to find a new grass (i.e. a plot of ground to bury him). Along with the tense protracted negotiations between warden and inmate in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) and Burt Lancaster lovingly tending to his canaries in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), the prison movies are best remembered for the battle against authority, such as the struggle of chain gang convict Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) in Cool Hand Luke (1962): "What we have here . . . is failure to communicate," says the prison warden. Jackson refuses to submit to authority, so he receives unmerciful beatings from guards and inmates alike. Memorably, however, he wins a bet -- and the admiration of the other inmates -- when he eats fifty hard boiled eggs, his stomach swelling dangerously in the process. For his non-conformity, Steve McQueen in the title role of Papillon (1973) does two lengthy spells in solitary confinement, where he is forced to consume insects to survive; while Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) refuses to throw the cons-versus-guards football game in The Longest Yard (British title: The Mean Machine) (1974) when he realizes, regardless of the game's outcome, the warden will increase his sentence and make his life miserable.

Brute Force

View an animated GIF of the blow torch scene (20 frames, 145KB).

The sadistic violence of the prison system was captured most disturbingly in Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978), about life in a Turkish prison, and in Scum (1983), about life in a British borstal. In the former, Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), having being tortured by guards, attacks the prison informer by gouging out the man's eye and biting out his tongue.

Prison movies veer wildly from the ridiculous -- Lock Up (1989) (Stallone playing Rambo in a prison yard) and Chained Heat II (1992) (Brigitte Nielsen prancing about as a leather-clad lesbian prison warden) -- to the sublime -- Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon fighting for his freedom in In the Name of the Father (1994) and Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater fighting against Alcatraz and the authorities in Murder in the First (1995).

What follows is a look behind the bars and cell doors at the significance of the prison movie.

page 1 of 6


Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Prison Movie as Genre

Page 3: The Prison Machine

Page 4: On Entering Prison

Page 5: Other Themes

Page 6: Captured On Film


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