The 10 Best Prison Break Movies of All Time

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We just love prison break films. Sometimes they’re not convincing but still watchable, sometimes they’re philosophical, sometimes they’re just pure silly fun, or sometimes it’s just a metaphor for something else but we love them and not just for one reason. Sometimes it’s like watching a film about con men; we like to see how they’ll work their “magic”, what kind of a plan they’ll come up with and we love the thrill of watching that if they will manage to do it or not.

The subject is always popular, and not just on movies. Just this year we get a miniseries directed by Ben Stiller, with Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano and Patricia Arquette in leads. For a while, let’s take a look at ten of the most memorable, impressive prison break films.


10. Papillon


The King of Cool Steve McQueen was also king of prison break films, as he was in this and “The Great Escape”. It is written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr. and was based on the 1969 autobiography by the French convict Henri Charrière. The picture is about his incredible life. This man was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, which he claims he did not commit.

First he is sent to penal servitude, and then he is put in a punishment cell for trying to escape. Having met Louis Degas, together they begin to plan, count, try. He helps Charriere in his many escape attempts, and by smuggling food to Charriere when the latter is put in solitary confinement. But who knows what is waiting for them? Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are both great in the leading roles in this amazing art-house spectacle.

McQueen of course, had been considered more of a “movie star”, someone who relies on his charisma and presence rather than acting ability, but he tries his best here to overcome his image and is actually very convincing. So is Hoffman as expected. The locations are stunning, the script is strong and the film is grim, brutal and memorable.


9. Midnight Express

Midnight Express (1978)

The movie has its flaws, in particular its portrayal of Turks is problematic and it generated a great deal of controversy in Turkey. Billy Hayes himself didn’t like it and Oliver Stone, writer of the film who won his first Oscar for its screenplay, apologized with admitting that he “over-dramatized” the script even if “the reality of Turkish prisons at the time was also referred to … by various human rights associations.”

Despite of it all, “Midnight Express” is a brutal, grimly great film directed with such skill by amazing Alan Parker (one would wonder why he stopped directing) and even though he never got a chance to shine again, Brad Davis is great as Billy Hayes, an American student who gets caught smuggling of hashish out of Istanbul. He finds himself in a foreign prison, totally foreign environment and faces with physical and mental torture. He seeks a way to escape and the title itself “Midnight Express” is actually prison slang for an escape attempt. The movie is also notable for earning John Hurt his first Oscar nomination. He sure is missed.


8. The Shawshank Redemption


It keeps topping the online lists of best films of all time. Not just online, and not just in one country. It’s a film that never gets old. No, “The Shawshank Redemption” is not the best film of all time; it’s not even the best film of its year or the best Stephen King adaptation.

In fact, it was a box office disappointment and back at its year this one not getting any wins over “Forrest Gump”, “Pulp Fiction” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” was not much of a big deal. Time has passed, and The Shawshank Redemption – which is about banker wrongly convicted of murdering his wife (Tim Robbins) and his wise old inmate (Morgan Freeman) – has proven itself to be one of the most universally beloved films among audiences all over the world.

It’s probably not a spoiler to claim that probably the famous prison escape in movie history, kind of climax that it gives you the same feeling that you felt whenever you watch it again and again. Nowadays that Raquel Welch picture is more iconic than it was thanks to the film.

We may be talking about the acting performances, memorable monologues, that famous climax here but one shouldn’t forget that it also has some gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins (you’ll keep wondering how did it take so long for him to win an Oscar? But you know, better late than never) and amazing score by Thomas Newman.


7. Runaway Train

Runaway Train

Andrei Konchalovsky comes to Hollywood with a terrific film. It’s a bit hard to believe that Eric Roberts once had a decent career. He got an Oscar nom for his performance here, along with Jon Voight who plays the lead character. They play two convicts who find a way to escape from super-max Alaskan prison. They hitch a ride on a freight train but things get out of control in very soon when the engineer has a heart attack and locomotive gets out-of-control.

“Runaway Train” is so many things; first of all it’s a terrific action-thriller film that delivers the action and the thrills. It’s a strong effort for its time. So much so that even its lead stars got an Oscar nom. How many action films can claim that? Voight is simply outstanding here, gives one of the best performances of his career if not the best. Co-written by ex con Eddie Bunker, who’s also known for his part in “Reservoir Dogs” – the film has seriously interesting characters.

It’s also a very influential film, you can claim that Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” has borrowed a thing or two from here. It may be a breathtaking action film full of awesome stunts, but it’s also an effective drama with well-developed characters.


6. A Man Escaped


Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance held in Montluc prison by the occupying Germans during World War II, “A Man Escaped” is one of Bresson’s masterpieces. Paul Schrader long analyzes the film’s themes and structure in his famous book “Transcendental Style in Film” as did some other scholars and film lovers.

What he was most intrigued and impressed was the spiritual nature of the film, as was common with many other Bresson efforts. It’s not something you should watch if you’re looking for some kind of Hollywood-esque adventurous escape plan or anything.

It’s about a man and his determination to find meaning in his actions, focused goal, and adherence to his beliefs. We don’t know much about him. He’s already there and the title spoils us the story as well, cause it’s not a film about the story, it’s more about his inner thoughts, his spirit. We watch the whole thing with Bresson’s unique language of cinema. The real life prisoner himself was a consultant on the film.