The 20 Best Movies Set in a Prison Environment

7. A Prophet (2009)


A Prophet could quite easily be the most realistic prison film on this list. The film follows Mailk (Tahir Rahim), a man trying to survive in a French prison after he is sentenced for six years. Whilst in prison he gets involved with a powerful mob boss and gains more respect and power in the process. But with the new power, he gains many more enemies. The threat of violence is always there, leaving the audience in turmoil throughout.

Malik is naïve when he first arrives at prison but prison slowly changes him into a criminal. Tahir Rahim is brilliant as Malik, and Niels Arestrup is equally brilliant as gang leader, Cesar. Again it is a tough film to watch, as is the nature of the genre, but it is absolutely brilliant too. A Prophet was one of the year’s Oscar nominees for best foreign film.


6. Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Paul Newman stars as Luke Jackson in Cool Hand Luke in which he plays an egotistical man who refuses to listen to prison rules or authority. He is sent to prison for two years, a prison unfortunately which has a sadistic warden (another common trope in a prison film!). He doesn’t play by the rules of the warden or the prison’s tough guy, Dragline (George Kennedy). However, Dragline ends up admiring Luke for his spirit and unbreakableness.

Luke continuously spends time in solitary confinement which causes his fellow convicts to start to admire him and he becomes a hero, but a pain to the prison officers. Paul Newman shines in the leading role as does George Kennedy, and the film is a moving spectacular classic. “What we got here is… failure to communicate”.


5. The Great Escape (1963)


This film probably has the most recognizable and singable score of all time. The Great Escape, produced and directed by John Sturges, was based on an escape by British prisoners of war from a German camp during the Second World War. The characters in The Great Escape were based on real people.

The commandant of the camp informs the prisoners that there will in no way be any escaping from this high security camp, and after a few escape attempts on their first day the group of prisoners start to release this is true and move on and start living day by day at the camp. However, this doesn’t last long and the group start planning the greatest escape ever.

The Great Escape is truly a re-watcher, a fantastic film boosted by amazing performances from Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner and many more. It is a great escape attempt film to watch and all the characters are brilliant. Like many prison films it is tragic, but entertaining and remarkable.


4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


The Shawshank Redemption is probably the world’s most well-known prison film. The film did not succeed at the box office, but since its release it is constantly rated as one of the best films of all time. Based on one of Stephen King’s stories it stars Tim Robbins as intelligent Andy Dufresne, the innocent man wrongly jailed for the murder of his wife.

A prison virgin, he is sent to a lifetime in prison at Shawshank. He then spends the next two decades of his life incarcerated for this crime he did not commit. Everyone is “innocent” in Shawshank, however Andy is actually innocent. Life is awful for him in prison, with no experience to get him through the first months, and he is beaten and attacked on numerous occasions.

Eventually he begins a friendship with some of the other cons. Life is also made easier for him when he is given work by the corrupt prison warden to sort out his money affairs to make him richer. As the audience, we feel Andy’s pain and we grow to love his friends, particularly Red (Morgan Freeman).

It makes the film a tough watch, but its ending is one of the most uplifting and glorious endings in cinema ever seen, which is mostly down to Morgan Freeman’s character, Red. I only wish I could go back and watch the film on its release to avoid being aware of what he is doing in his cell behind that poster. The Shawshank Redemption is an uplifting story of triumph through adversity, and it can be re-watched again and again, and never loses its magical spark.


3. A Man Escaped (1956)


A Man Escaped is based on a French Resistance fighter’s story of how he was held by the Nazis and attempted to escape. Fontaine (Francois Letterrier) is awaiting his death sentence in a Nazi prison camp in France.

Fontaine’s character is based on a memoir by Andre Divigny who actually escaped from a Nazi prison camp. When Fontaine hears that his execution is imminent he begins a plan to escape. However, problems ensue when he is given a new room mate who then has to be kept in the know about the escape plan.

Robert Bresson directs this film sublimely, he uses no effects in filming Fontaine in his cell, just simple shots so that we become used to the cell as much as Fontaine is and as such most of the film takes place in his cell. We rarely step outside of Fontaine’s cell after he is imprisoned; we live with him inside his small four walls. It is a remarkable piece of cinema and an emotional rollercoaster of a ride.


2. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest stars Jack Nicholson in one of his best ever roles as Mac McMurphy. He begins the film by serving a short term in a prison for statutory rape, but he is then sent to a mental institution to be evaluated. His hopes by doing this are that he will get to serve his time in a much more lenient environment than prison. However, time in a psychiatric prison is nowhere near as an easy journey as he expected.

The film has one of the film world’s worst ever ‘baddies’ in Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. She is eager to make the inmates lives a misery by humiliating them and giving them unneeded and horrible medical treatments, and constantly degrading them. Immediately Mac becomes the leader of the other prisoners, and makes it clear that he is going to protect them from Nurse Ratched.

Mac and Nurse Ratched certainly do not see eye to eye, and begin a silent and long battle. The fellow prisoners are brilliant, many famous names included in them, including Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd and Will Sampson. They play their different characters to perfection, each character perfectly defined.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is just a brilliant film invoking all different emotions. It is hilarious in places, but it is scary and desperately tragic. One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest unsurprisingly won numerous awards, including the big five at the Oscars for best picture, best director, best actor, best actress and best adapted screenplay, deservedly so.


1. Le Trou (1960)

le trou becker

Le Trou is another French prison escape film set in Paris in the 1940s. Mark Michel plays Gaspard, a man wrongly convicted of the attempted murder of his wife and is sent to a notorious prison in Paris in which he shares a cell with four other tough prisoners.

Handily his prison cell mates are in the process of planning an escape to which they therefore have to invite Gaspard into. However they do not know whether they can trust Gaspard, and have to decide whether he wants to escape as much as they do. Gaspard goes along with the plan, but when his wife drops the charges everything gets a bit confusing for him.

The attention to detail in Le Trou involving the prison escape and the relationship between the prisoners is brilliant. Le Trou is one of the greatest and thrilling prison break films of all time.

Author Bio: Tessa has been a film fanatic and list writer since she learned to walk. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Television Studies, and a Masters Degree in Scriptwriting from Aberystwyth University. She has a particular interest in horror films, and is currently attempting to write her debut horror script whilst living the dream in Bristol. Follow her on Twitter @Tessicat.