5. (2 way tie) The Great Escape / Chicken Run
These films are paired together because they are basically the same movie with a few distinct differences. One is a live action WWII prisoner of war escape epic staring Steve McQueen, the other is a Claymation prisoner of war escape epic, starting chickens.
The Great Escape (1963) – Directed by John Sturges
I was always troubled a bit by how oblivious the Germans were portrayed in this movie. On the one hand you hear the horrors of concentration camps and the atrocities that were committed by the Nazis, then in this film you have a bunch of unorganized, just shy of Hogan’s Heroes, bumbling idiot soldiers.
I wonder if this film is a bit disrespectful of the people that were captured and during the war? Anyway, this movie isn’t trying to be “realistic”; it is a great caper with iconic performances and set pieces. McQueen jumping those fences on a motorcycle are cinematic images that will always be in my head.
Chicken Run (2000) – Directed by Peter Lord & Nick Park
On an English chicken farm a group of renegade chickens decide to escape their confines. The film really is a love letter to The Great Escape, with a few scenes recreated shot-for-shot. Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson, is the leader of the group. His character is a total reimagining of the role made famous by McQueen. There is a bit of a love story in this movie that didn’t exist in The Great Escape, but it all works and the Claymation is some of the best I have even seen.
4. Papillon (1973) – Directed by Franklin Schaffner
Papillon is a Frenchman and a petty criminal. He is caught and sentenced to life in prison at the French Guyana penal island. He makes friends with a forger named Degas. They form bonds that even the most harsh and inhumane treatment can’t break. The film can be a sloppy mess at times, but it is brilliant beyond belief in the scenes of attempted escape. McQueen (again) and Dustin Hoffman have an instant chemistry that unites them both in the story and in the hearts of the viewers. Of all the films on this list, this is the one where I route for the captives to regain their freedom.
3. A Man Escaped (1956) – Robert Bresson
Bresson is known for his unflinching vision and motionless camera work. Using that style to show the monotony of prison life, the personal detail, and the repressive forces at work, Bresson created a slow motion action film shot at regular speed. The long shot of silent tasks breathes a tension into the film.
Another signature of Bresson is showing the hands of the characters. In this film it is the hands of a political prisoner, being used to strategize an escape. The night he is expecting to perform his escape, he gets a new cellmate that throws a major wrinkle in his plans. The escape its self is nearly totally silent. It reminded me a lot of the heist in the Jules Dassin film Rififi.
2. Cool Hand Luke (1967) – Directed by Stuart Rosenburg
Anti-establishment filmmaking at its finest. Luke Jackson is a man that won’t be broken. He is a loner that develops a following in the southern chain gang prison he was sentenced to for cutting the heads off of parking meters.
Newman’s charisma shines through in his performance and crystal blue eyes to the point where it is impossible not to route for this independently self-destructive man. He martyrs himself against the warden, a devilishly fantastic performance by Strother Martin, with only the slightest of cause. He is a man all to himself. The Christ imagery is all over this film, and I am fine with worshiping Mr. Newman.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994) – Directed by Frank Darabont
Based on a short story by Stephen King about a man wrongly accused of killing his wife who gets sentenced to life in prison. Set in the 1940’s we see the story of this man as he passes through time and gains the favor of the warden and prison staff. That is until he gains too much power and has to be taken down. It is at this point when he sets into action a plan to escape that takes nearly 20 some years.
In my opinion this is the last “old school Hollywood movie” ever made. It can be a bit overly sentimental and convenient at times, but the filmmaking on display and the performances carry this movie and have made it part of the American lexicon.
Author Bio: “I once had wealth and power and the love of a beautiful woman. It was never easy for me. I was born a poor black child, sittin’ on the porch with my family singin’ and dancin’ down on the Mississippi”. You can find Andrew Willis on Twitter(@movierabble) and Letterboxd.