Prison is often considered a very unforgiving, yet provocative place to be. It’s a place that absolutely no one ever wants to be, but somehow stories that are focused on such an environment always seem to draw the attention of so many people.
Audiences often want to see characters who are wrongfully imprisoned released into freedom that should have been theirs in the first place. In other cases, viewers are along for the ride as they watch a protagonist develop and execute a masterful plan that will allow them the space to have a sense of freedom behind bars.
With so many plots that are focused on life behind bars, it’s tough to determine which are the best among them all, but listed here are the 10 best prison movies in top-to-bottom order.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Originally based on the book Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption surprisingly doesn’t have any of his customary supernatural or horrifying elements woven into it. The drama that’s portrayed throughout the story focuses on Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, who lives through several years of imprisonment after he is unjustly found guilt of murder. Andy is sustained during his incarceration by an everlasting friendship with another convicted murderer named “Red”, played by Morgan Freeman.
Robbins and Freeman are terrific in their roles, as is Bob Gunton in his superb portrayal of the warden which he embodies a soft-spoken, yet corrupt narcissist that’s not just one of the greatest prison antagonists, but possibly one of the best villains ever in cinema history. While much of The Shawshank Redemption ventures into the psychological darkness that can run rampant within prison walls, the final act of this film are played to perfection as the audience is rewarded for having as much patience that would make any inmate at Shawshank envious.
In 1995, The Shawshank Redemption was nominated for seven Academy Awards which, interestingly enough, is the most for any film that’s been adapted from a Stephen King literary work.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Released in 1967, Cool Hand Luke starred the legendary Paul Newman as the titular Luke, a World War II veteran who is imprisoned in a Florida prison camp. The movie was made during a time when resistance against the Vietnam War was very popular and pushing back against “the establishment”, as it were, was also just as favorable among the masses.
Luke is often shown in the film bucking back against the warden, the chain gang captain, and any other person who attempted to establish dominance over Luke and his fellow prisoners. Freedom for the inmates appeared to be rather bleak throughout but their unwavering resistance against the ones who had them shackled was undeniable to the very end.
Cool Hand Luke was a box-office success, and despite Newman not winning the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, he was deservedly considered an in-demand leading man in Hollywood going forward. Newman’s co-star George Kennedy won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while the film also earned nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
As the only prison film that’s ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Bridge on the River Kwai has certainly earned a high ranking here. The Bridge on the River Kwai is based on the 1952 novel of the same name and despite the setting focusing on a real-life location in Burma, the plot and characters are all fictional.
Sir Alec Guinness stars as a British Army Colonel at the head of a group of POWs who arrive at a Japanese prison camp in Thailand. The prisoners are tasked with building a railway bridge across the titular waterway, unaware of the inherent danger involvied in the project. Humanity, and the sacrifices those under duress make to preserve just that very concept, are at the forefront of not only one of the best prison movies but also one of the best war movies in history.
The Bridge on the River Kwai was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress and is on the American Film Institute’s list of best American films ever made.
The Hurricane (1999)
This critically-acclaimed biopic from 1999 told the real-life story of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington), a boxer who was wrongfully imprisoned for life after being convicted for three murders he and an associate didn’t commit. The Hurricane is based on the autobiography written by Carter himself titled The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, and the non-fiction book Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Freeing of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, both of whom were also depicted in the film.
The Hurricane charts Carter’s life from his poverty-stricken childhood, to his promising prizefighting career, and then through the nearly two decades of his imprisonment that lead to his eventual release in 1985.
Living legend Denzel Washington portrays Carter in one of the best performances he’s ever given in his career. Washington won a Golden Globe for his efforts but lost out on the Oscar that same year, an award many thought he was a shoo-in to win. The Oscar was given to Kevin Spacey for his performance in American Beauty.
The Great Escape (1963)
Hollywood legend Steve McQueen led an all-star ensemble cast in The Great Escape, the 1963 war film about a prison break that would exceed normal proportions. Based on a non-fiction book of the same title by Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape follows a large group of British POWs that escape from a Nazi prison camp in Poland. Similar to The Bridge on the River Kwai, this film features a fictionalized chain of events to make for a successful finished product.
As with many films about prison, humanity, or lack thereof, is at the forefront but that doesn’t mean this was far from a riveting story about prisoners of war who risk everything to escape their captors.
McQueen starred alongside several well-known actors of his time in this ensemble cast such as James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, and Lord Richard Attenborough.
In an attempt to lighten an otherwise difficult environment, Life, starring comedy legends Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, definitely does the job.
Life follows Ray (Murphy) and Claude (Lawrence) as they go through a life sentence in a Mississippi prison camp for a murder they didn’t commit. Somehow, laughs are more than abundant through a storyline about these two men living and basically growing old together within the confines of a prison. Despite the occasional race-related scenes that drive some key plot points, Life is truly funny and a rare prison movie that brings about way more laughs than tears.
Life didn’t do well at the box office but has a deep cult following, obviously among fans of Murphy and Lawrence. Interestingly enough, Life earned only a few award nominations, the most notable one being a 1999 Oscar nod for Best Makeup to legendary make-up artist Rick Baker.
In the Name of the Father (1993)
Based on real events, In the Name of the Father starred legendary actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon one of the “Guildford Four,” a group of Irishmen who were wrongfully accused of bombing a pub in London of 1974. One of Day-Lewis’ best performances, the Oscar nominated actor painstakingly shows how Conlon endured 15 years of wrongful imprisonment in the face of a broken justice system.
Along with Day-Lewis’ Oscar nomination, In the Name of the Father also got several other nods for Academy Awards including Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Emma Thompson’s performance as Gareth Peirce, Conlon’s defense lawyer, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Pete Postlethwaite who played Conlon’s father. Jim Sheridan was also nominated for Best Director while the film overall was nominated for Best Picture.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Cinema icon Clint Eastwood starred in Escape from Alcatraz, a prison thriller about an inmate who schemes to literally do exactly what the title says: break out of the titular and very real island prison off the coast of California. Despite Escape from Alcatraz being an exaggerated plot based on a non-fictional story of the same name, Eastwood plays a clever bank robber named Frank Morris, one of three men who did indeed make an effort to escape the toughest prison in America.
For the sake of not spoiling anything, let’s just say that it’s easy to see where later successful prison break films got their inspiration for their own respective plotlines. Escape from Alcatraz was a great success and is widely considered one of the best films of its time. Escape from Alcatraz was also the last collaboration between Eastwood and director Don Siegel, who had worked on four previous films with Eastwood, including Dirty Harry.
The Green Mile (1999)
Stephen King has never been imprisoned during his lifetime but he seems to somehow know how to tell an exceptional prison story from the perspective of those behind bars. The Green Mile is the second pick on this list that was developed from a King novel and is held in high regard similar to The Shawshank Redemption.
The Green Mile stars Tom Hanks as a death row prison guard who accompanies an unjustly sentenced murderer and gentle giant, played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, to the electric chair. Duncan’s character mysteriously influences supernatural activities in the days leading up to his impending execution.
The events that occurred in this prison’s death row, nicknamed “The Green Mile,” are more reminiscent of what audiences expect from King’s work, featuring perceived immortality and other abilities that are beyond normal human capabilities.
The Green Mile was a huge success as it earned four Academy Award nominations, including nods for both Hanks and Duncan, respectively. For Duncan, this was his breakout role as he won a Black Reel, Broadcast Film Critics Association, and a Saturn Award, all for Best Supporting Actor.
The Longest Yard (1974)
The Longest Yard starred the legendary Burt Reynolds as a former pro football player who leads a squad of his fellow inmates against a team full of their prison guards in an exhibition game. The Longest Yard is intriguing as there haven’t been many movies that successfully blended sports and jail such as this one. Overall, The Longest Yard does a great job pairing the grittiness of being behind bars with more than enough humor to make the story easily digestible.
After its release in theatres, The Longest Yard quickly became another hit for Reynolds and it earned a handful of award nominations including three Golden Globes nods, not to mention its long-lasting notoriety that resulted in a 2005 direct remake that starred Adam Sandler, with Reynolds appearing in a separate cameo role.
There you have it: the 10 best prison movies for your entertainment that are sure to provide the best experience of being behind bars – without the criminal record, of course!