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There’s something about a good escape movie that leaves you with that pit in your stomach. You feel like you’re on the edge of your seat knowing that one wrong move can upend the perfect plan to elude the authorities and attain freedom from whatever is holding you down. The more intricate the plan, the more invested we become in the success or failure of the escape. Here is a list of some of the movies that feature top escapes in film.
Escape From New York (1981)
When Escape from New York premiered in 1981, it was set in the not too distant future of 1997. Maybe it’s a little dated, but John Carpenter‘s tale of Manhattan turned into a maximum security prison is one of his better films. Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell) is a convicted bank robber turned hero tasked with navigating the lawless New York borough to save the President of the United States (Donald Pleasance) who has been abducted by a rogue group of inmates after Air Force One crash lands in the middle of the Big Apple. The late Isaac Hayes is terrific in his role as The Duke, the leader of the band of misfits that are holding the POTUS hostage in exchange for their freedom.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
When Clint Eastwood wasn’t busy playing Dirty Harry or making spaghetti westerns, he was hatching a plan to get out of the most notorious prison in the United States. Long before Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage were making their way onto The Rock, Clint was busy trying to Escape from Alcatraz. His character, Frank Morris, executes a plan that has every inch of the bold plan mapped out. From crafting a paper maché dummy to fool the prison guards to squeezing through the tightest nooks, he takes two fellow inmates along with him, attempting what no man has done before —make it off of the island and then swimming in shark infested waters to the safety of San Francisco.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Ellis Boyd Redding (Morgan Freeman), or “Red,” says it best: “He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn’t normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would protect him from this place.” He was, of, course referring to Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who is wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to life in prison. The Shawshank Redemption isn’t just one of the best escape movies, it’s hands down one the best films ever made. The tale of a banker who goes to jail only to get sweet redemption over the course of twenty years is nothing short of a movie masterpiece. Did we mention the criminal double-snub of Freeman and Robbins at the Oscars the following year? Now we have. Freeman was nominated, but didn’t win and Robbins didn’t even get invited to the red carpet.
With the World Cup just coming to a close, we’d be remiss not to include this terrific escape entry starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and Pele as prisoners of war in a Nazi camp. When the head of the facility (Max von Sydow) organizes a soccer match between an international group of imprisoned allies and their Nazi captors, a treacherous plot is undertaken that will test the resolve of the prisoners as they try to use the exhibition as a cover for an intrepid escape attempt from the brutal clutches of the Third Reich regime.
The Great Escape (1963)
With an amazing ensemble cast that includes Hollywood icons like Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, The Great Escape is a remarkable classic that details the escape of a group of POWs being held in Germany after their capture during World War !!. In a joint effort between American and British prisoners, a complex plan that includes the digging of a long tunnel underneath the prison camp is only half the battle as the group must also find a way to safety from behind enemy lines once they come up for air. Such an amazing collection of talented actors is rarely seen in film today.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Alexander Dumas’ seminal revenge novel about Sir Edmond Dantes (Jim Caviezel) is also a terrific escape movie. In The Count of Monte Cristo, when a simple man with a simple wish to marry the woman he loves, Mercedes (Dagmara Dominczyk), is wrongfully arrested and imprisoned by a man that he counted as a friend, Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce), he toils and languishes in dark and dank dungeon whilst Mondego marries the unwitting Mercedes. It takes years for Edmond to regain his freedom and unleash a brilliant plan to get sweet revenge against the man who attempted to steal his life and his love.
Steve McQueen stars in yet another gem of an escape movie in the 1973 classic Papillon. Nicknamed “Papillon” by fellow inmates because of a butterfly tattoo on his chest, the film is based on the true story of Henri Charriere, a small-time con man falsely convicted of murder who will stop at nothing to escape from a work camp in French Guiana, South America. He teams up with an infamous forger, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman).and the two put their heads together and scratch out a plan to find sweet freedom.
A Man Escaped (1956)
While we’re on the topic of French themed prison escape films, this true story based on the writings of prisoner of war and French Resistance fighter, Andre Devigne Fontaine is the oldest, but maybe the best of the genre. Played by Francois Leterrier, Fontaine’s story outlines an elaborate prison break that is dealt a major setback when he is assigned a new cellmate by his Nazi captors in World War II. With an assortment of weapons forged by his own hand and an inch-by-inch mental blueprint of the prison at Fort Montluc, he decides to take his new cellmate along with him in an attempt to sneak out from under the Germans’ nose.
Escape from Pretoria (2020)
Memo to Daniel Radcliffe — you’re not at Hogwarts anymore, Harry! Imprisoned for spreading pro-integration and anti-apartheid literature in South Africa during the ’70s, freedom fighters Tim Jenkin (Radcliffe) and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webster) are subjected to abuse at the hand of a cruel prison captain and staff. With an assortment of homespun wooden keys, Jenkin is able to lead a group of three inmates through the maze of the dank prison, past security and straight out the front gate in Escape from Pretoria. Mark Leonard Winter also shines as Leonard Fontaine, a French prisoner caught up in the apartheid mess who is integral in the escape.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The boss of the chain gang (Strother Martin) in Cool Hand Luke maintains that, “What we have here, is a failure to communicate!” Maybe he’s right, but that doesn’t stop Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) from becoming a habitual rule-breaker in this magnificent epic set in under the blistering sun on a Florida prison yard. Luke’s mentality of, “if at first you don’t succeed, try again” sees him fleeing and being recaptured on several occasions. His rebellious nature leads to a lot of time in the hole, but he is unbroken as he continues to find his way out of the prison time and time again. This classic role solidified Newman’s status as one of the most iconic leading men in the history of film.