From The Shawshank Redemption (1994) to Le Trou (1960), here’s my ranking of the greatest prison movies ever made.
The industry has produced films focusing on prisons and incarceration for almost as long as it has existed. Prison Time, reportedly the first prison movie ever filmed, came in 1910. In the 1930s, prisons became one of the important set-ups for the classic American gangster films. Later, The Great Depression facilitated narratives where prisoners were mostly depicted as victims of a harsh justice system. The era was followed by World War II, and it encouraged Western filmmakers to make thrilling as well as melodramatic narratives out of the war prisoners’ experience. But from movies like Brute Force, Caged to Cool Hand Luke, and The Shawshank Redemption, prison movies gradually and deeply looked into the mechanisms of the prison-industrial complex.
Prison narratives started asking bigger questions about the nature of penal institutions. Great filmmakers around the world have made us wonder whether prisons exist for mere punishment or rehabilitation. Nowadays, cinema has started addressing penal institutions’ close ties with capitalism. We are subjected to narratives that unflinchingly depict the profitability involved in prison labour and mass incarceration.
The main reason for the enduring popularity of prison movies is that they’re more often an observation of human psychology. These narratives take us into a world which most of us sophisticated moviegoers otherwise might never come across. At the same time, they tap into our fear of getting caught in an unjust, unforgiving system.
Very quickly then, here’s what I think are some of the best prison movies. These are entirely or mostly set inside the bleak prison walls:
25. Caged (1950)
John Cromwell’s Caged tells the story of 19-year old Mary Ellen (played by the extraordinary Eleanor Parker). She is accused of aiding and abetting her husband in a crime. The husband is killed during the robbery and the pregnant Mary gets stuck in the cruel penal system. While the warden Ruth Benton is a caring woman, the brutish matron Evelyn bullies and terrifies Mary.
Caged is an entertaining prison melodrama interspersed with few film noir elements. Virginia Kellogg’s screenplay offers hard-hitting social commentary on prison’s vicious disciplinary mechanisms. In fact, it was a gutsy film for its time, considering the draconian movie censorship laws of the period.
24. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Escape from Alcatraz was the fifth and final collaboration between actor Clint Eastwood and writer/director Don Siegel. The narrative dramatises the only allegedly successful escape attempt of a prisoner from San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary in the 29 years of its operation (1934-1963). Clint Eastwood plays Frank Morris, a criminal obsessed with breaking out of maximum-security prisons. He recruits like-minded individuals to pull off the great escape.
Don Siegel turns Escape from Alcatraz into a brilliant mood piece as the tension is gradually built with each obstacle. Don Siegel, known for his minimalistic storytelling abilities, previously directed another fascinating prison-set drama Riot on Cell Block 11 (1954).
23. Starred Up (2013)
David Mackenzie’s gritty prison drama Starred Up revolves around Eric Love (Jack O’ Connell), a youngster transferred from juvenile prison to adult facility due to his violent behaviour. Eric’s absentee father Neville is a hardened criminal and is also kept in the same prison. While the system has decided to lock up Eric and throw away the key, a prison therapist named Oliver believes that Eric can be redeemed.
However, this isn’t a conventional tale of redemption. There’s no sugar-coating and we witness the challenges in dealing with a violent individual’s trauma. The complex characterizations are the biggest strength of this simply structured narrative. Starred Up reminded me of two other similar prison dramas, Scum (1979) and Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988).
22. Lion’s Den (2008)
Argentinean filmmaker Pablo Trapero’s Lion’s Den is a painful portrait of a young mother’s life inside prison. The pregnant university student Julia is said to have murdered her partner. But the shocked and dazed Julia doesn’t remember what happened. While waiting for the trial, Julia is locked up in the maternity ward of prison. Convicted women prisoners raise their children in the ward until the child turns four.
Lion’s Den isn’t a thriller and eschews a lot of the familiar prison movie tropes. Director Trapero rather closely focuses on Julia’s internal struggles and her slow transformation from a naive student to a fierce mother. Trapero shot the film inside a real prison with real inmates acting as extras. Martina Gusman’s solid and understated performance keeps us thoroughly invested.
21. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father is based on the heartbreaking true story of Irish youngster Gerry Conlon. Gerry (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his friends are wrongfully convicted for the IRA bombing of a London pub. They serve 15 years in prison for a forced confession. The riveting docudrama doesn’t focus much on the ethnic and political conflicts in Northern Ireland, which is collectively addressed as The Troubles. It rather focuses on Gerry’s brutal prison experience and his fight against injustice.
Emma Thompson remarkably plays the lawyer, who believes Gerry is innocent and eventually secures his release. Daniel Day-Lewis’ dramatic prowess as usual adds intensity to the proceedings.
20. The Hill (1965)
Sidney Lumet’s The Hill is set in a North African prison-camp for British deserters during WWII. The narrative, based on a play by Ray Rigby and R.S. Allen, draws from Rigby’s own experiences as a war prisoner. The ‘hill’ in the title is a large sand mound that’s built by prisoners and utilised as the means to dispense brutal punishments.
The story revolves around five new convicts who enter into the prison camp. The authority figures particularly resent Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) among the five. Joe punches his commanding officer instead of blindly taking order to lead his men on a suicide mission. Similar to Paths of Glory (1957) and King & Country (1964), The Hill is a brilliant indictment of hierarchical systems.
19. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983)
Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence was the first English language project of radical Japanese master Nagisa Oshima. Two biggest musicians of the era played the central roles: David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Multi-hyphenate Japanese artist Takeshi Kitano also played a key role. The narrative is set during World War II and provides British POWs experiences in a Japanese prison camp. However, unlike most films that unfold in a similar setting, Oshima offers an intimate, well-rounded look at the sufferings in a POW camp.
Generally, in movies like this the perceived enemy is reduced into a villainous archetype. Here Oshima deeply studies the nature of Japanese conservatism. He honours the basic humanity of the battle-hardened men on both sides.
18. Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985)
Pixote fame Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman is based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel. The film tells the tale of two different men who share a cell at a Brazilian prison. Luis Molina is locked up for a homosexual affair. Valentin is a political prisoner who is part of a radical underground movement. The prisoners gradually become close as Molina tells a story to kill time. The story Molina tells Valentin would later interestingly parallel his own fate.
Kiss of the Spiderwoman is a multi-layered drama that celebrates freedom, tolerance, humanity, and resilience. The soul of the narrative, however, is the terrific central performances by William Hurt (who won an Oscar for it) and Raul Julia.
17. The Green Mile (1999)
The Green Mile marks Frank Darabont’s yet another successful adaptation of Stephen King’s story. Similar to Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption, this film is also set inside a prison. However, in Green Mile the narrative unfolds from the perspective of a humane prison guard. Tom Hanks plays Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard assigned to the death row cell block. There he meets a hulking giant of a man named Duncan, who is convicted of terrible crimes.
Paul and his co-workers’ life changes when they understand Duncan’s true nature. Unlike Shawshank, Darabont largely relies on caricatured characters and stereotypes to put together his meaningful message. Nevertheless, the standout performances and an emotionally engaging script keep us hooked.
16. Cell 211 (2009)
Daniel Monzon’s edge-of-the-seat prison-riot thriller is based on a novel by Francisco Perez Gandul. The narrative revolves around Juan, a trainee prison officer who gets accidentally injured when he is given a tour of his new workplace. Soon, a riot breaks out, and the panicked guards leave the unconscious Juan in an empty prison cell. Juan is not dressed as a guard. Hence, he gets the chance to closely observe Malamadre, the bald-headed psychotic prisoner, who spear-heads the riot.
Though contrived at places, the high-octane pace of Cell 211 keeps us engaged throughout. Spanish star actor Luis Tosar is terrifying as Malamadre. The film eventually portrays how the institutionalised brutality of the penal system could turn any individual violent.
15. Stalag 17 (1953)
Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 opens in a German prison camp and in the aftermath of a failed prison escape attempt. Stalag 17 is a barrack in the camp, which is full of cynical and hardened sergeants. Since the escape attempt is thwarted, the sergeants suspect that there’s a spy in their camp. All eyes fall upon Sefton (William Holden), a grumpy war veteran who bets against the men escaping.
Wilder is known for striking the right balance between serious and humorous tone. In fact, the little funny moments within tense sequences make it a thoroughly entertaining prison drama. In one of his rare acting roles, director Otto Preminger plays the absolutely menacing camp commandant, Colonel Von Scherbach.
14. Bronson (2008)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson is a wonderfully stylized portrait of Michael Gordon Peterson, who is dubbed as the ‘most violent prisoner in Britain’. He used the name Charles Bronson as a bare-knuckle fighter. He was first arrested at the age of 22 for armed robbery. Then on, Bronson’s violent personality has kept him inside prison for more than 40 years (even at 70 he is currently inside a prison).
However, Refn’s movie isn’t a conventional drama. He employs innovative staging techniques to get into the hermetic world of Bronson. Moreover, it wouldn’t be such a powerhouse feature if not for Tom Hardy’s astonishing performance. Hardy and Refn turn Bronson into a thoughtful study of anti-social behaviour.
13. Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
There have been few important prison dramas that have highlighted the dark aspects of the penal system. Prisons are simply designed to lock away the prisoners rather than rehabilitate them. John Frakenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz is one such pivotal work which astoundingly showcases why rehabilitation matters. The narrative dramatises the real-life story of Robert Stroud, a prisoner who spent 54 years of his life in prison.
Mr. Stroud committed two murders and spent 42 years of his imprisonment in solitary confinement. However, over the years he became a self-taught ornithologist and even developed a medicine for a disease that was killing his canaries. The terrific drama was strengthened by Burt Lancaster’s mesmerizingly nuanced performance.
12. Hunger (2008)
There have been cinematic narratives that have covered Margaret Thatcher government’s inhumane treatment of IRA prisoners. But no other film takes you as close to the political prisoners’ struggle and suffering as Steve McQueen’s distressing debut feature, Hunger. The film chronicles IRA militant Bobby Sands’ hunger strike at the Maze prison in 1981.The Irish prisoners demanded the Thatcher government to recognize them as political prisoners, not as terrorists.
The visceral impact of Hunger is very hard to put into words. McQueen makes us share the prison cell with these lanky Irish men, and keenly observe their starvation and martyrdom. Michael Fassbender offers a remarkable performance as Bobby Sands. The ten-minute dialogue (shot in a single, static take) between Sands and his priest is one of the best scenes in cinema.
11. Brute Force (1947)
In Brute Force, Jules Dassin treats prison as an authoritarian system and populates it with strong characters who give voice to his radical social politics. Burt Lancaster plays the protagonist Joe Collins, an incarcerated common man brutalised by the prison bureaucracy. Hume Cronyn plays Captain Munsey, the fascistic head guard who derives pleasure in tormenting the prisoners psychologically and physically. At the same time, Munsey isn’t portrayed as a solitary figure who exploits the system.
All hell breaks loose when inmates of Joe Collins’ cell block revolt against the head guard. The visceral impact of the film’s intense final scene is hard to describe. Brute Force was scripted by prolific Hollywood filmmaker Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood).
10. Mathilukal aka The Walls (1990)
Based on an autobiographical novella by renowned Indian-Malayalam writer Mohammad Basheer, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal is a beautiful portrait on how imprisonment impacts the human soul. During the era of Indian Independence, Basheer was jailed under charges of treason. The well-respected writer wanders around the jail, sporting a wide smile and converses with his fellow inmates. In the later half of the film, Basheer develops a close bond with Narayani, a female prisoner with a sweet voice who is imprisoned on the other side of the giant wall.
Though they never see each other, the conversations provide respite from their anguish and loneliness. Mammootty’s restrained performance marvellously captures the inner struggles of the central character.
9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
David Lean’s epic prisoners-of-war drama is based on the true events described in the 1954 novel by Pierre Boulle. The movie unfolds in a Japanese labour camp in Burma, where the imprisoned British war prisoners are ordered to build a bridge. The British Colonel Nicholson knows that the bridge might offer tactical advantage to the Japanese troops. Yet, the POWs build the bridge, while commando troops fight their way through the jungle in order to destroy the bridge.
David Lean doesn’t opt for noisy action and caricaturized characterizations. The battle of wits between Col. Saito and Col. Nicholson is brilliantly staged in the first half. The physical and moral degradation of POWs are also showcased in a detailed manner.
8. Papillon (1973)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon is an adaptation of Henri Charriere’s 1969 memoir of the same name. The book recounts the author’s imprisonment in French Guiana, and his numerous attempts to escape the penal colony, starting from 1931. The screenplay was written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. But later, the renowned black-listed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo came onboard to strengthen the script.
While the biggest star of the era, Steve McQueen played Charriere, Dustin Hoffman — the most promising actor of the era — played the equally important role of an expert forger named Louis Dega. Papillon is one of the few hard-hitting prison dramas that capture the harshness of solitary confinement and its impact on the human psyche.
7. The Grand Illusion (1937)
Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion is one of the earliest and greatest anti-war films, next to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Set during World War I, the film revolves around a French Lieutenant (Jean Gabin) and a Captain, whose plane is shot down by the Germans and they’re captured alive. Inside the POW camp, the duo bring together a host of other French men in order to attempt an escape.
There’s plenty of action throughout Grand Illusion, but it is the strong humanist message and multi-faceted characters that obviously makes it a masterpiece. The Nazis who harboured dreams of an empire despised the film. Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels is said to have called the film: ‘cinematic enemy number one’.
6. A Prophet (2009)
Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet showcases the familiar irony of the penal system. A scared young man gets convicted for a minor crime. He has no family and no education. Once inside the prison, he experiences the brutality of the prison system that’s divided by gangs and ethnicity. The young man gradually learns how to become a criminal and survive within the system.
While many films have chronicled such tales, A Prophet is very distinct thanks to memorable characters and Audiard’s thoroughly absorbing direction. The politics behind organised crime and how prison life facilitates crime is recounted in great detail. Besides, Tahar Rahim’s extraordinary performance is a wonder to behold.
5. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke is a sad and beautiful prison drama which embodies the counterculture spirit of the American 1960s. It features screen legend Paul Newman in his most iconic and powerful role. Luke, in a drunken spree, takes a pipe cutter and chops off municipal parking metres. Subsequently, he is convicted for damaging public property and sentenced to a chain-gang in the Florida backwoods. Inside the prison, the charismatic rebel finds it hard to abide by the harsh rules and regulations of the prison Captain.
Luke is characterised as the symbol of resistance and individuality. Director Rosenberg also throws in his share of Christian imagery to emphasise on Luke’s cool-headed defiance in a cruel world.
4. The Great Escape (1963)
John Sturges’ The Great Escape is one of the most entertaining dramas ever made in cinema. It is a thrillingly fictionalised retelling of the prison break at Germany’s Stalag Luft III POW camp in 1944. The film features an extraordinary cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Garner. The narrative unfolds like a perfect heist movie. The intelligent and resilient bunch of war prisoners come together and execute an ingenious plan to escape the camp.
Though it’s set in a desolate atmosphere, Sturges imbues a lot of organic humorous moments. The focus on the camaraderie amongst the men also makes the film more uplifting. There are also plenty of memorable moments including McQueen character’s motorbike jump scene.
3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Though a box-office failure, Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption went onto become one of the most loved movies of all time, thanks to its enduring dominance in the IMDb Top 250 Films list. Based on the 1982 Stephen King novella, the movie tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a man who was wrongly convicted of killing his wife. Andy embarks on a decades-long quest to achieve his freedom and redemption. Furthermore, the crux of the narrative is the robust friendship between Andy and his fellow soft-spoken inmate Red.
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman’s phenomenal central performances perfectly anchor this prison drama. Overall, The Shawshank Redemption is an ode to hope and a celebration of human resilience.
2. A Man Escaped (1956)
Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is based on Resistance Fighter Andre Devigny’s escape from a German POW camp. Bresson himself has been a prisoner of war between 1939 and 1941. However, if you are acquainted with Bresson’s austere works, you’d understand that this won’t be a typical prison break film. The great French auteur offers a simple yet effective portrait of an imprisoned soul working towards liberation.
Though it’s not a suspense thriller, A Man Escaped is an engrossing film from start to finish. Through minimalist details and clever juxtapositions, Bresson elevates the escape drama into a meditation on existentialism, spiritualism, and humanity. The central character Fontaine was played by a Paris philosophy student.
1. Le Trou (1960)
Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (aka ‘The Hole’) is without a doubt the greatest prison break thriller. Similar to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Becker diffuses an existentialist undercurrent to the narrative. At the same time, the filmmaker creates great tension and suspense through attention to detail. Le Trou intimately showcases the mental acuity and sheer physicality required to execute the expansive escape plan. The film is based on the autobiographical novel by ex-con Jose Giovanni, who broke out of Le Sante prison in 1947.
Becker chose one of Giovanni’s fellow escapees, Jean Keraudy to play a central role. Besides, the director hired non-actors to play most of the key cast members. We’re so involved in the minutiae of the prisoners’ escape that the ending eventually leaves us overwhelmed.
There you go! These are the finest movies that are largely set inside a prison. We’ll always be drawn to prison movies because it’s basically about survival, injustice, and redemption. In fact, these aforementioned films have the power to change societal attitudes about penal law and the system. Of course, there are many others that aren’t part of our list. Midnight Express (1978), Carandiru (2003), Brawl in Cellblock 99 (2017), Murder in the First (1995), Felon (2008), The Escapist (2008), The Longest Yard (1974), R (2010), and Brubaker (1980) are some other engrossing prison movies you can add to your watch list.
What are your favourites? Tell us in the comments below.
An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’