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Our 15 Favorite Prison Breaks At The Movies

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 15, 2013 at 2:01PM

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Prison Break Feature

“You’ll like it, it’s about a prison break” says Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption” about the book they’re shelving, Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” “We oughta file that under ‘educational’ too, oughtn’t we?” quips Red in reply, and indeed, with the sheer number of prison escape books and movies that exist, you’d imagine that all a really dedicated inmate has to do is watch or read enough of them before they’d stumble across a plot that could be adapted for their own situation. (Note: The Playlist does not condone real-life attempts at fleeing prison unless you’re totally innocent, a prisoner of war or you have a really cool plan that involves disguises and dummies and stuff.) This week a movie in a similar vein is released and we highly doubt it will be accused of having any educational content whatsoever: “Escape Plan.” Starring brawny side of aged beef Sylvester Stallone and tanned leather pommel horse Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film puts “the world’s foremost authority on structural security” (that’s a thing?) into the “world’s most top-secret escape-proof prison” (also a thing?) and has him team up with his cellmate to devise an exit strategy while also finding out who framed him and why.

While this film (previously titled “The Tomb”) may look dumber than a bucket of hair, and has been strangely un-buzzy despite its starry cast (Jim Caviezel, 50 Cent, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones and Amy Ryan also appear), we’re fully prepared to accept that it’s could be a lot of fun in a brainless, unreconstructed way, mainly because as often-visited as the territory may be, we have kind of a weakness for prison break films, even when they're ever so silly. Perhaps it’s something metaphorical about anti-authoritarianism and sticking it to the man or perhaps we've killed a bunch of people (watch those critical comments guys!) and realize it's just a matter of time before we're caught and incarcerated ourselves. Whatever the truth is here’s a jolly good sampler of 15 of our arbitrarily chosen favorite movie prison breaks, and what we might be able to learn from them. Be warned, though, since we’re talking about the success or failure of the schemes, here be *SPOILERS* throughout.

Escape to Victory

"Escape to Victory" (1981)
What's It About? Angling for a propaganda stunt, German POW camp commandant (Max von Sydow) arranges an exhibition soccer match between a team of Allied prisoners, and a German team made up of Wehrmacht officers. While the Allied coach (Michael Caine) resists attempts to use the match as a cover for an escape attempt by the team (populated with real-life famous footballers like Bobby Moore and Pele), an ornery American, Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), working in tandem with the Resistance, ignores the coach and plots to do just that.
What's the Escape Plan? Noting that the Colombes stadium in which the showcase match is to be held is adjacent to the Paris sewer system, the Resistance decides to tunnel into the Allied team's dressing room, and smuggle them out from there.
How Successful Is It? Actually it's a complete success, with the tunnelers breaking through at half time when the team, at this point being beaten 4-1 due largely to deeply biased refereeing and foul play by the Germans, is resting between halves. However their recognition of the moral victory that is at stake is such that they elect to return to the pitch instead of escaping, whereupon their pluck results in a magnificent draw that spurs an ecstatic (and very early 80s-looking) crowd to invade the pitch, and they escape in the throng anyway. Even crusty old Max von Sydow appears to have been won over by the sportsmanship he's witnessed and doesn't lift a finger to stop them leaving.
Would It Work In Real Life? Probably not, considering how many variables there are, not to mention requiring an escapee to allow himself to get caught again in order to communicate the plan in the first place.In fact the film is based on a real-life event albeit one that didn't end in quite such a "football conquers all" victory as here, nor one that actually featured an escape attempt. The 1942 "Death Match" as it was nicknamed, became the subject of Soviet propaganda after the fact so details are fuzzy, but it was apparently the last in a series of matches played between a team of Ukrainian professional footballers and a team representing the occupying Germans. The Ukrainians had won every one of their matches and had become a popular draw, and this last match was no exception. Afterwards, however several members of the Ukrainian team were arrested and persecuted by the Gestapo, resulting in their deaths, while still others remained free only to later be prosecuted as German agents by the Soviets. So, a much messier true story, and one in which Sylvester Stallone never got in goal, but still it would appear that here too, the love of the game drove the players never to capitulate, at least not on the pitch.

chicken run

"Chicken Run" (2000)
What's It About? A bunch of chickens, realizing they're next for the chopping block (after the farmers go from selling eggs to chicken pot pies), plan an escape from their oppressors.
What's The Escape Plan: "Chicken Run" is loosely based on "Stalag 17," with Mel Gibson playing a cocky rooster named Rocky who promises to teach the chicken how to fly in order to escape the farm. It's discovered, of course, that Rocky isn't who he says he is and he "flew" by getting fired out of the canon (he is a circus performer, but had a history as a pilot). After a period of depression, the birds decide to build a plane out of parts made from the chicken coops (they have access to old airplane schematics) and have Rocky pilot the plane. It's pretty cute.
How Successful Is It? Not only do the chickens escape to freedom in their makeshift airplane, but they also destroy the machine that the farmers are planning to use to artificially fatten the chickens. At the end of the movie, the chickens have established a kind of chicken safe haven for themselves, where they can live and work and breed in relative peace. Again: it's pretty cute.
Would It Work In Real Life? Although no scientific tests have been conducted, if a bunch of chickens were left with some airplane schematics, chicken coop parts, and a will to live, they probably would be able to pull something like this off. While "Chicken Run" is an animated film (by the stop motion geniuses at Aardman) for children, the movie often plays up occasionally haunting imagery held over from the World War II internment camps, which doesn't lessen the real life tragedy but imbues this animated film with an eerie sort of history. You know, it's pretty cute.


The Escapist

“The Escapist” (2008)
What's It About? Rupert Wyatt’s underrated, oddly rhythmed debut feature, which was well received at Sundance but failed to find much traction after, stars Brian Cox as Frank Perry, an institutionalized lifer who only decides to attempt an escape 14 years into his stretch when he discovers his daughter is addicted to drugs. Collecting a gang of accomplices around him, he puts his plan into action, but is compromised by his cellmate (Dominic Cooper) getting mixed up with the prison ganglord (Damian Lewis). The final act twist does take some acrobatics and many may find themselves already frustrated by that point, but it’s still an ambitious attempt to do something different with a well-worn genre.
What's the Escape Plan: The film jumps between two narrative timeframes, meaning it’s hard to get a coherent picture of the exact procedure of the escape, however it involves a lot of clambering through holes in walls, and some torchlit processions through disused London Underground tunnels, and, at one point, gasmasks. That there is a narrative reason for the impressionistic nature of the escape is only gradually revealed, though whether that revelation totally justifies the self-consciously non-linear approach is debatable.
How Successful Is It? Spoiler alert or no, this is a film we don’t want to wholly give away because of the likelihood of not so many people having seen it. So suffice to say,from Frank’s point of view, it’s a successful attempt, though his matrix for judging success gets progressively more complex as the film goes on.
Would It Work In Real Life? Ha, well, let’s see, no, probably not. Not only is the plan poetically rather than practically laid out within the film, it is as far as we can tell, almost impossible to have arranged the practicalities of the escape without detection. And it’s also heavily implied that it needs a pretty spectacular diversion to work at all—and the diversion is not, in fact, part of the plan. Which will all make more sense if you’ve seen it, if only a little.

This article is related to: Escape Plan, The Escapist, Escape From New York, Features, Feature


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