Monday 18 December 2017

Earning their stripes - 10 classic prison yarns worth digging out

As 'Starred Up' hits the cinemas, here are 10 classic prison yarns well worth digging out

Starred Up
Starred Up
Cool Hand Luke
The Great Escape
The Shawshank Redemption

Paul Whitington

Up-and-coming actor Jack O'Connell was born in Derby and is only half-Irish, but we might want to start claiming him, because his performance in a new film called Starred Up is so good that critics are predicting huge things for him.

The 23-year-old made his name playing the young tearaway James Cook in Channel 4's teen drama Skins, but takes on a much tougher role in David Mackenzie's grim prison drama.

In Starred Up, which opened here yesterday, O'Connell plays Eric Love, a disturbed and angry young offender who's considered sufficiently dangerous to be transferred to a men's prison. He arrives with a toothbrush, a plastic razor, a portable radio and some baby oil, all of which he quickly turns into weapons to viciously demonstrate just how tough he is. He swaggers around like he owns the place, but is strangely subdued in the presence of prison bigwig Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), who also happens to be Eric's dad.

Starred Up is a pared down, brutal and very effective drama that proves just how compelling a genre the prison movie can be if it's done right. The problem with prison dramas is that it's very hard to dodge the clichés and do something original: sadistic guards, Mr Bigs, wrongly accused prisoners and wise old veterans have to be portrayed with a spark of originality if they're to avoid coming off as ridiculous.

Starred Up

Starred Up

David Mackenzie's Starred Up just about manages this. It's good, but not as good as the 10 films below, classic prison yarns that effortlessly overcome the limitations of the genre to create truly memorable cinema.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

One of the most compelling crime dramas ever made, Mervyn LeRoy's 1932 classic was based on a real miscarriage of justice and starred charismatic Jewish actor Paul Muni as James Allen, a disillusioned World War I veteran who gets caught up in a robbery and ends up in a brutal Georgia penitentiary.

Considered daringly realistic in its time, the film's unflinching depiction of life on a chain gang led to public outcries and even some prisoner releases.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Hitler and Goebbels hated this film so much they demanded all copies of it destroyed. Happily, they failed in this endeavour, because Jean Renoir's film is now considered one of the greatest war films of all time.

It's also a great prison film, because most of its action takes place in a series of World War I German PoW camps. Jean Gabin and Pierre Fresnay play French airmen from opposite ends of the social scale who join forces to attempt repeated escapes. If you've never seen this film, you really should.

The Great Escape (1963)

A staple of many a childhood Sunday afternoon, John Sturges' classic war film was actually not very well received by critics on its release, and only became popular when reshown on television in the 1970s.

The Great Escape

Based on the true story of a daring mass escape attempt from Stalag Luft III, it's massively entertaining despite being almost three hours long. An A-list cast includes everyone from James Garner and Charles Bronson to James Coburn and Richard Attenborough, but it's Steve McQueen who steals the show as Virgil Hilts, the 'Cooler King'. And then there's Elmer Bernstein's film score, one of the best ever written.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Everyone remembers the scene with the eggs, but there's a lot more to Stuart Rosenberg's funny but hard-hitting crime drama than that. Though made in 1967, Cool Hand Luke is set in the 1940s, and stars Paul Newman as a decorated soldier called Luke Jackson who cuts the heads off parking meters as a drunken prank and is sentenced to two years on a Florida chain gang.

Cool Hand Luke

Luke's a free spirit, and when he refuses to fit in with this harsh regime, the corrupt warden sets out to break him.

Papillon (1973)

Prisons don't come much nastier than the old French penal colony on Devil's Island, and this 1970s blockbuster is inspired by the experiences of Parisian burglar- turned-author Henri Charriere. Steve McQueen plays Charriere, a gifted safecracker who's sent to the sub-tropical hellhole after being falsely convicted of murder.


There he faces starvation, malaria, forced labour and extreme heat, but 'Papillon' refuses to let the place crush his spirit and plans a reckless sea escape, helped by a lovable forger played by Dustin Hoffman.

Midnight Express (1978)

Another prison film based on a true story, this time starring Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, a student who was foolish enough to try and smuggle hashish out of Turkey in 1970.

Apprehended by customs police with two kilos of hashish strapped to his chest, he's arrested and sent without trial to a hellish prison where he finds the going very tough. John Hurt plays an English heroin addict who tries to steer Billy clear of trouble, and a young Randy Quaid plays another American prisoner in this gripping thriller directed by Alan Parker and written by Oliver Stone.

Brubaker (1980)

This slightly neglected film is one of my favourite prison dramas, and is directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who also made Cool Hand Luke. Robert Redford stars as a mysterious and silent prisoner who arrives at a grim southern penitentiary called Wakefield.

After witnessing sexual assaults, torture and worm-ridden food, he reveals himself as Henry Brubaker, the new warden, and a man determined to reform this endemically corrupt prison. Yaphet Kotto plays a veteran inmate who agrees to help Brubaker, and watch out for a then-unknown Morgan Freeman playing a prisoner.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Mr Freeman takes centre stage in this excellent Frank Darabont prison yarn based on a story by Stephen King. Tim Robbins co-starred as Andy Dufresne, a mild-mannered banker who's sent to the grim Shawshank prison after being convicted of killing his wife and her lover.

The Shawshank Redemption

Freeman is an old stager who befriends him, and though Andy is picked on by the warden and various gangs, he always maintains his innocence and dreams of one day escaping. Shawshank did nothing at the box office when first released in 1994, it became hugely popular on video and TV, and is now a popular classic.

Hunger (2008)

Michael Fassbender is a big Hollywood star these days, but it was his performance in Steve McQueen's Hunger that got him there.

The English filmmaker's debut feature is an imaginative and unflinching take on the 1981 IRA Maze Prison hunger strikes, and Fassbender plays the Republican inmates' charismatic leader Bobby Sands, who reflects on his life and experiences as he prepares to make what he sees as the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Fassbender summons extraordinary intensity in his portrayal of Bobby Sands, most notably in a compelling 20-minute encounter with Liam Cunningham's concerned priest, and Hunger is one of the very finest prison movies.

A Prophet (2009)

In Jacques Audiard's outstanding, Oscar-nominated crime drama, Tahar Rahim is Malik El Djebena, a young French-Algerian who's given a six-year stretch for attacking a police officer.

Alone and terrified in a brutal prison environment, he's taken under the wing of an elderly Corsican gangster called Cesar Luciani, who sees promise in the boy and forces him to prove himself by committing a particularly vicious murder. Audiard's film brilliantly charts Malik's evolution from frightened youth to a clever and resourceful criminal, and veteran French actor Niels Arestrup is terrific as the cynical mobster Cesar.

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