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Men, Machines And The Mincer: The Prison Movie

Dr. Paul Mason (August 1998)

Two dilemmas exist concerning prison movies: first, hardly any research has been undertaken in the area and secondly, there has been little attempt to define the prison movie. Paradoxically, whilst the genre may not be instantly recognisable, there are many prison movies that stick in the memory. I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang (1932), based on the real life events of Robert Burns from his book I Was A Fugitive from A South Georgia Chain Gang !, was an extraordinary film depicting the harrowing experience of James Allen (Paul Muni) who escapes the chain gang only to live in constant fear of being caught. In a powerful final scene, Allen says a last goodbye to the woman he loves - Helen (Helen Vinson):

Allen: But I haven’t escaped, they’re still after me, they’ll always be after me. I’ve had jobs but I can’t keep them - something happens, someone turns up. I hide in the rooms all day and travel by night: no friends, no rest, no peace...keep moving that’s all that’s left for me. Forgive me Helen, I had to take a chance to see you tonight, just to say goodbye.

Helen: Oh Jim, it was all gonna be so different

Allen: It is different, they’ve made me different. (hears a noise and, startled, whispers) I’ve gotta go

Helen: I can’t let you go like this, can’t you tell me where you’re going (shakes his head) Will you write ? (shakes head again) Did you need any money ? (shakes head, backing away from her and staring wildly) But Jim, how do you live ?

Allen: I steal

Fifteen years later Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947) offered a bleak representation of prison life. Of the many brutal scenes in the film, the most graphic is undoubtedly the death of a prison informer. He is forced into the pit of a drop hammer, surrounded by other inmates carrying blow torches. Naturally the hammer falls, and the prison guards need to find a new grass. Along with the tense protracted negotiations between warden and inmate in Riot In Cell Block Eleven (1954) and Burt Lancaster tending to his canaries in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), the prison movie is best remembered for inmates battling with the prison authorities. Paul Newman as Luke Jackson is determined to do his two years as hard time in Cool Hand Luke (1962). Jackson refuses to submit to authority, facing unmerciful beatings from the guards and inmates alike, and memorably wins a bet to eat fifty hard boiled eggs. For his non-conformity, Steve McQueen in the title role of Papillon (1973) does two lengthy spells in solitary confinement, forced to consume insects to survive the second spell; while Paul Crew (Burt Reynolds) refuses to throw the cons versus guards football game in The Mean Machine (1974) realising his sentence will be increased and his life made a misery by the Warden.

Prison movies veer wildly from the ridiculous: Lock Up (1989) (Stallone does Rambo in a prison yard) and Chained Heat (1992) (Bridget Nielsen prances about as a leather clad lesbian prison warden) to the sublime: Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon fighting for his freedom in In The Name Of The Father (1994) and Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater fighting against Alcatraz and the authorities in Murder In The First (1994). What follows here is a look behind the bars at the significance of the prison movie. First, we must return to the issue of defining the genre.

The Prison Movie As Genre

The term 'prison movie' is both a nebulous and problematic one. It is not a term used in everyday discourse like 'gangster film', 'musical' or 'western' is used and yet most of us would describe Midnight Express, Birdman of Alcatraz and Papillon as 'prison movies'. Only Querry (1973), Nellis & Hale (1981) and Crowther (1989) have written about the prison movie and none of them attempts to define the genre. It is perhaps the difficulty in definition which explains why so little has been written about the prison film despite over three hundred having been made since 1910. The biggest problem with prison films is deciding how much of a film has to be set in prison to be classed as a prison film. As Nellis & Hale (1981) point out:

scenes of imprisonment occur in all different types A Man For All Seasons, swashbuckling melodramas like The Count Of Monte Cristo and even in westerns, There Was A Crooked Man for example. (Nellis & Hale 1981, p.6)

Conversely, a film about prison does not necessarily have to be set in one. David Hayman's film Silent Scream (1990) concerns the suffering and mental anguish brought on by incarceration, yet this is not predominantly set in prison. We're No Angels (1955), Breakout (1975), In The Name Of The Father (1995) and Sleepers (1996) could all be seen as concerned with prison, yet in all of them a significant part of the film takes place outside the prison walls. Further more, Laurel & Hardy in The Hoose Gow (1929), Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock (1957) and Porridge (1978) whilst all mainly set within the walls of a prison are merely star vehicles with prison as a backdrop. Having considered these problems, I settled on the following definition of a prison movie - 'a film which concerns civil imprisonment and which is mainly set within the walls of a prison or uses prison as a central theme'. Whilst not without its flaws, not least of which being the well documented problem of delineating genre , I think it is a working definition allowing a discussion of prison movies. Before looking at two specific issues in prison movies, I will deal briefly with broader thematic patterns .

Escape, Battle and Riot

Along with the prison as machine and inmates first experience of prison (discussed below), there are of course other themes prevalent in the prison film - not least of which is the prison escape documented in numerous films such as Prison Break (1938), Crashout (1955), Breakout (1975) and, perhaps most memorably Midnight Express (1978). The constant battle with authority too punctuates most prison films. Often depicted as a battle to survive, inmate defiance has been central to the prison movie. Robert Stroud's refusal to be institutionalised in Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) is a prime example of such a battle. There is a constant struggle throughout the film between the Governor and Stroud culminating in Stroud's tirade against the prison system:

you want your prisoners to dance out the gates like puppets on a string with rubber stamp values impressed by you with your sense of conformity, your sense of behaviour even your sense of morality...When they're outside they're lost - automatons just going through the motions of living but underneath there's a deep deep hatred for what you did to them...The result? More than half come back to prison.

The battle is sometimes physical with brutal exchanges between officers and inmates (McVicar (1980), Scum (1983) Lock Up (1989) for example). While at other times it is expressed in mental victories over the system - broadcasting music over the exercise yard tannoy from the Governor's office in The Shawshank Redemption (1995); deliberately losing the big race in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962) and getting Alcatraz closed down in Murder In The First (1995). The target for inmate battles is often represented as a huge faceless system of which the guards and the Warden are only part: inmates must fight the machinery of punishment.

House Of The Dead: the prison machine

Central to the prison movie is the concept of the prison as a machine: the 'system' with its impenetrable sets of rules and regulations which grind on relentlessly. The effect of such a mechanistic depiction of punishment is to highlight both the individual fight for survival and the inherent process of dehumanisation which comes with incarceration in the system. The monotony and regulation of prison life is most often depicted by the highly structured movement of prisoners. From prison films of the 1930s and 40s like Numbered Men (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), San Quentin (1937), Men Without Souls (1940) and Brute Force (1947) through to recent movies like Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Shawshank Redemption (1995) shots of inmates trudging along the huge steel landings, up and down stairwells to and from their cells has been used to convey the system within prison:

Rows of cell doors open simultaneously and hundreds of prisoners tramp in unison to the yard. In the cavernous mess hall, they sit down to eat the mass-produced fodder their keepers call food. The camera tracks along a row of prisoners to reveal faces mainly individuated by the manner in which they express their revulsion at the meal. (Roffman & Purdy 1981, p.26 on a scene from The Big House)

One of the most memorable examples of this depiction of routine came in the Mervyn LeRoy directed I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). After his first night's sleep in the camp, James Allen (played by Paul Muni) awakes to the sound of the chains which bind the inmates together being pulled along the bunks and out of the dormitory. With heads bowed the inmates sit with their legs over the bunks waiting for the chains to disappear out of sight after which they stand up and march out of the dorm and onto trucks where they are transported to the mines to hammer rocks. All of this is accompanied by the deafening sound of rattling chains and guards shouting abuse at the men.

Many prison films continually repeat shots of inmates doing the same tasks which acts both as a link between scenes and as a reminder to the audience of the mundane regime of prison. In San Quentin (1937) for example we are regularly shown the massive exercise yard filled with inmates; in The Pot Carriers (1961) inmates are frequently seen lining up to collect food; and in McVicar (1981) many of the conversations take place as prisoners walk either up or down stairwells or from their cells. This uniformity in movement not only underlines the highly structured routine of the prison but extends the machinery image further. The motion of inmates, in contrast to the solid silence of the walls which contains it, mirrors the workings of a machine - prisoners are the cogs that whir around, driving the huge mechanism of punishment unswervingly onward.

Indeed, in some films the camera pans round the prison interior, dwelling on landings, stairwells, bars and cell doors, stressing the quasi-industrial nature of the prison. In Wedlock (1990) the audience follow new inmate Magenta (Rutger Hauer) around the high-tech maximum security prison to which he has been sent. The camera sweeps around the dripping silver pipes, huge fans and metal columns accompanied by an insistent humming noise. Two Way Stretch (1960), Midnight Express (1978) and Silent Scream (1990) also feature lengthy internal shots of the prison while prison movies featuring Alcatraz (Alcatraz Island (1937), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and two TV movies Alcatraz: the Whole Shocking Story (1980) and Six Against The Rock (1987)) all dwell on their grim surroundings.

As well as its physical presence, the prison film shows the inflexible rules of the machine:

'I know 'em. There the same in all Pens. They tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to go to the privy'. (From Birdman of Alcatraz (1962))

Although used primarily to illustrate injustice, the hard and fast prison rules serve to emphasise the unyielding processing of inmates through the penal system. This is expressed through seemingly trivial regulations such as no inmate may touch the prison radio in The Ladies They Talk About (1933); no talking during hard labour in (amongst many others) Road Gang (1936), Papillon (1973) and Scum (1983); inmates to refer to each other only by their prison name in Wedlock (1990) and so on. Breach of such regulations is often punished by long periods of solitary confinement, a penalty often represented as harsh given the original offence (Papillon (1973) and Murder In The First (1995) for example).

The injustice suffered by inmates at the hands of the prison machine is used by some films to make political points. This was particularly true of films made in the 1930s with prison represented as a symbol of 'the system': the cause of the despair and recession in 1930's America. Films such as Hell's Highway (1932) and Blackwell's Island (1939) show prison as 'the ultimate metaphor of social entrapment' (Roffman & Purdy 1981, p.26) with the emphasis on the brutality of prisons and chain gangs robbing men of their individuality and freedom:

the evil in the men's prisons appears to have been transformed into some larger entity. More often than not, that larger entity takes the form of a political or big city "machine". The effect of this was to encourage the audience to ... vent whatever animosity they might be able to muster on ... the "system" that seemed, to the thirties audience, to control the very life of every honest, hard working (or unemployed) man in America. (Querry 1976, p.159)

The representation of the prison as a machine in cinema is fundamental to the prison movie. For it is from this idea that the other themes flow: escape from the machine, riot against the machine, the role of the machine in processing and rehabilitating inmates and, entering the machine from the free world as a new inmate.

On Entering Prison

One method frequently employed by prison films to stress the systematic nature of the prison experience is the emphasis on its effect on inmates. In particular the dehumanising process which turns men into prisoners, numbers and statistics. This process begins with the routine new inmates first go through when they enter the prison. When Gerry Conlon is first taken to prison in In The Name Of The Father (1995) he hands over his clothes which are placed in a box by a stern looking prison officer. Stripped naked, he is then hosed down in cold water and, covered with delousing powder. His clothes are replaced by prison issue uniform and he is pushed into his cell. The dehumanising process begins. A similar process occurs in both Numbered Men (1940) and The Shawshank Redemption (1996) but versions of this routine are present in nearly all prison films. Their significance centres on the prison's control of the body. Inmates stripped, examined and washed accentuate the transformation from outsider to insider.

There are also parallels here with public executions. Executions at the gallows and guillotine were visible displays of the sovereign’s ultimate control over his subjects. This mastering of the body of the condemned, while not ending in the taking of it, is present in the routine on entry to prison. Perhaps most symbolic is the cutting of the hair seen in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), Papillon (1973) and Midnight Express (1978), historically an attack on liberty and personal autonomy and, of course, visually the most noticeable difference between inmate and free man. The speed and mechanical implementation of these rules regarding the entry of a new inmate is the first, and perhaps therefore the most striking, example of the regulated institutional nature of prison the viewer sees. The machine begins to roll.

This new-inmate procedure has another function other than highlighting the process of turning men into prisoners. As viewers, we have limited knowledge of prison and hence when a character enters prison, we too share their ignorance and fear. As an audience we are subjected to the harsh regime of prison life, stern officers and claustrophobic cells. Cinema is aware of our ignorance and often uses it to elicit sympathy for the new inmate: the naively of "Red" Kennedy (Humphrey Bogart) in falling for an inmate prank in San Quentin (1937) and freshly convicted James Rainbow trusting a well-known tobacco baron in The Pot Carriers (1962) for example. As part of the new arrival, inmates often meet with a violent introduction from guards. Chain gang films like Road Gang (1936) and I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) depict guards whipping inmates new to the regime of hard labour. While in The Mean Machine (1974) Paul Crew (Burt Reynolds) is beaten by Head Guard Captain Kennauer and in Murder In The First (1996) Henry Young (Kevin Bacon) had his foot sliced with a razor by Chief Warden Glenn (Gary Oldman).

The Appeal Of The Prison Film

If one could total up all the hours of screen time that have been devoted to imprisonment, all the years of effort that have been put into making prison films, and if one could count all the people that had seen them, one might be tempted to wonder if it had all been worth it. Nellis & Hale (1981,p.44):

One could argue that it was worth it, if only because particular prison experiences have come to light because of a film. However the question remains whether the prison film ever created 'an atmosphere more conducive to prison reform' (Nellis & Hale (1981, p.44). There are perhaps two reasons for this failure. The first concerns some of the films that comprise the genre. Those prison movies which used the horrors of imprisonment for titillation and shock value, indifferent to any wider reformist stance. Most at fault were the exploitative films about women in prison made in the 1970s including the Women's Penitentiary trilogy: The Big Doll's House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972) and Women In Cages (1972). Consequently those prison films with a genuine reformist stance are viewed as simply more refined versions of their crass counterparts. The second reason for the prison film's failure to encourage reform is more political - that the only reason any prison film contributes to the penal debate is because passages already exist for it to happen. In the case of I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), Nellis & Hale (1981) point out the publicity at the time concentrated on how un-American chain gangs were and how they resembled the barbarous acts of nations given a bad press at the time, such as the French on Devil's Island. Hence the billboard poster advertising the film:

Watch the crowds as they come out ! Women...with tears in their eyes ! Men...ready to fight ! (Quoted in Querry 1975, p.28)

Despite the apparent failure of the prison film to change the penal system, its popularity is unquestionable. Root (1982) argues that the attraction of the prison film lies in something intangible:

It isn't immediately obvious why prison films should occupy such a prominent place with the film going public. Most prison films...don't have glamorous locations, rarely involve international stars and usually have very little sex in them. (Root 1982, p.14)

The appeal of films concerning prison lies in a combination of factors. These include the 'deterrent factor' - making the audience think twice before committing a crime; the 'graphic and extreme sadism' (Root 1982, p.14) particularly prevalent in films like Scum (1982) and Midnight Express (1978); and the identification with revolt against authority as we are encouraged to revolt with the hero against his inhumane treatment: to stop the prison machine.

Perhaps most appealing to the audience is the prison film opens up the world of the prison. The audience have the opportunity to share in the criminal world, to move in circles of illegality from the safety of their cinema seats. This viewer-experience is positively encouraged by the film: the audience is locked up with the inmates, hears of the escape plan, talks to the officers and exercises in the yard. It is perhaps in this that the real appeal of prison film lies.


B. Crowther, Captured On Film - The Prison Movie (BT Batsford Ltd. London, 1989)

M. Nellis & C. Hayle, The Prison Film, Radical Alternatives To Prison (London 1982).

R. Querry, Prison Movies: An Annotated Filmography 1921 - Present in Journal Of Popular Film, vol 2, Spring 1973, pp.181-97.

P. Roffman & J. Purdy, The Hollywood Social Problem Film, (Indiana University Press 1981)

J. Root, 'Inside' The Abolitionist No.10 , Radical Alternatives To Prison (London 1982).

For an interesting summary of the arguments surrounding genre criticism see: Film Genre Reader II (B. Grant ed., Austin University of Texas Press 1995).

I have chosen not to focus on narrative structure and character development here. For an extensive, although superficial overview of prison movie plots and characters see: Crowther (1989).

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