The 10 best movies about prison feature a wide variety of concentrations. Some are deep character studies about the fragile nature of man’s sanity under incarceration. Others chronicle real life rescue and escape attempts. Still others show the friendships that emerge between players in the prison system and how lives are changed for the better.
- “Papillon” (1973) A movie about prison starring Steve McQueen, this time he plays the title character Papillon, a French convict wrongly jailed for murder. He forges a friendship with a fellow prisoner and together they plot their escape from the backbreaking hell of Devil’s Island.
- “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) Clint Eastwood stars as Frank Morris, the real-life brains behind the infamous 1962 Alcatraz escape. Alcatraz is portrayed in all its realism here, and the details of the clever escape attempt are awesome and gripping.
- “Rescue Dawn” (2007) Based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a Navy fighter pilot in the Vietnam War who was shot down and captured by Laotian guerillas. Christian Bale plays Dengler and chronicles his fight for survival while becoming the only American POW to escape a POW camp during the Vietnam War.
- “The Great Escape” (1963) One of the best movies about prison and one of the finest World War II flicks as well, “The Great Escape” is about a group of American and British POWs interred in a Nazi concentration camp. They hatch an ingenious escape plan right under the Nazis’ noses that has thrilled audiences for decades.
- “The Green Mile” (1999) Paul Edgecomb is a corrections officer who oversees Death Row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. There he meets a very unique prisoner by the name of John Coffey who has the power to heal sickness and disease. Edgecomb becomes convinced that Coffey is innocent of the charges against him, and experiences a crisis of faith as he struggles with whether or not to execute him. When it comes to the best movies about prison, “The Green Mile” is hands down the most touching and inspiring.
- “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) Burt Lancaster plays Robert Stroud, a criminal sentenced to life who begins studying birds in his spare time. Not an action flick like the other movies about prison, “Birdman of Alcatraz” is a character study that focuses on mankind’s ability to keep his life intact and thriving in even the harshest conditions. Received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography.
- “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) Luke is an inmate in a Georgia prison who bucks the hierarchy of both the prisoners and the guards. He’s portrayed as an individual, a free-thinker who refuses to conform, which has proven to be deadly in the prison system. Of the candidates on this list, “Cool Hand Luke” is by far the hippest movie about prison.
- “Midnight Express” (1978) Billy Hayes is an American vacationing in Istanbul who is arrested by Turkish official before he can return home. Found with hashish taped to his body, he is thrown into prison where he languishes through various forms of torture for five years until managing his escape. The darkest movie about prison, it’s also based on a true story.
- “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985) One of the more character-driven movies about prison, most of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” takes place inside a cell shared by two Brazilian men, Arregui and Molina. Together they reminisce about their lives and the passions they enjoyed before they were imprisoned. Eventually they build a friendship, but it is later revealed to be a game by one of the men in order to learn the secrets of the other. William Hurt won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Luis Molina.
- “Shawshank Redemption” (1994) “Shawshank Redemption” is so good, it’s often brought up in the same debate with “Casablanca” and “The Godfather” as to which is the best movie ever made. Andy Dufresne is found guilty of a murder he didn’t commit, and must spend consecutive life sentences in prison. “Shawshank Redempion” is about his efforts to remain uncorrupted and to regain his freedom.
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