Nothing is more thrilling than a great escape movie

January 5, 2009
by William J. Felchner

When it comes to the movies, there’s nothing more thrilling than a good escape picture. Stories of the indomitable human spirit, the will to survive and the desire to be free have generally made for a pretty good show in Hollywood through the years.

What follows is a selected list of some of the best movie “escapist fare” ever to hit the silver screen. Many of the big films are here, along with a few surprises as well. So here they are, the “Lucky 13” of great Hollywood escapes.

• The Great Escape (1963). When the word “escape” is mentioned in movie circles, most people’s attention is immediately focused on this gem of a picture from United Artists. Featuring a truly all-star cast headed by Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, The Great Escape was loosely based on the 1950 nonfiction book of the same title by ex-POW Paul Brickhill (1916-1991). When a group of troublesome Allied prisoners-of-war are placed in a special camp, one of their commanders, Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Attenborough), proposes that they escape en masse in order to create chaos among the Germans. The operation is then given the green light, with the men digging three tunnels (codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry), forging documents, making civilian clothes out of their uniforms, and obtaining maps and railroad schedules. Although one of the tunnels is discovered by the German guards, another is eventually completed (though it comes up short), whereby the men begin escaping into the cover of the woods during an Allied air raid on a nearby city. When the camp’s lights finally come on again, guards discover the escape attempt, but not before dozens of men have scattered into the countryside. Some are recaptured while others are killed, but one enterprising Australian (Coburn) does make it back to friendly territory with the help of the underground. One group of recaptured POWs, which includes the mastermind of the operation, “Big X,” are unloaded from a truck in an isolated forest where they are then machine gunned to death by the Nazi SS.

Made for an estimated $4 million, The Great Escape, filmed completely on location in Germany, had its first showing at the Moscow Film Festival in July of 1963. What many people remember about the film are the breathtaking sequences involving Steve McQueen’s attempted escape on a stolen German motorcycle. Although McQueen (playing Captain Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”) did his own riding in the movie, the big, spectacular 60-foot jump over a barbed wire fence was done by McQueen’s good friend, Bud Ekins. Interestingly, The Great Escape received a thumbs-down review from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (August 8, 1963), who called the film “artificial from the outset.”

• Papillon (1973). Based on the improbable (some say largely fabricated) memoir by Henri Charriere (1906-1973), Papillon starred Steve McQueen in the title role of a Frenchman who is wrongly convicted in the murder of a pimp. He is then sent to the penal institution on French Guiana (also known as Devil’s Island), where he plots his escape. His first attempt fails when he steps through the rotted planks of a jungle boat he purchased, resulting in a stretch in solitary confinement where silence is strictly enforced. In a second attempt, Papillon and his comrades make it off the islands, but are betrayed by the Mother Superior of a convent and sent back to French Guiana. More solitary confinement ensues, with Papillon emerging from his ordeal an old, bearded man. Finally, Papillon does it make to freedom, and is seen floating away from his island prison on a raft made of coconuts.

Shot on location in Jamaica, Spain and on St. Laurent du Maroni in French Guiana, Papillon was billed as “The greatest adventure of escape ever filmed!” It certainly lived up to its tagline, offering a brutal look at convict life on infamous French Guiana and one prisoner’s relentless quest for freedom.

Made for $12 million, Papillon grossed over $53 million during its first run in the United States. Spectacularly directed by Franklin J. Schaffner and scripted by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr., Papillon also featured Dustin Hoffman in one of his finest roles, that of myopic counterfeiter Louis Dega. In his review in The New York Times (Dec. 17, 1973), Vincent Canby called Papillon “a big, brave, stouthearted, sometimes romantic, sometimes silly melodrama with the kind of visual sweep you don’t often find in movies anymore.”

• The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Alexandre Dumas’ famous 1844 novel has been a huge favorite of film producers, with the first version coming in 1911 and the latest incarnation hitting the big screen in 2002. My personal favorite is the 1934 movie from United Artists, which starred Robert Donat as the story’s hero, Edmond Dantes. Also in the cast were Elissa Landi as Mercedes de Rosas, Louis Calhern as Raymond de Villefort Jr., Sidney Blackmer as Fernand de Mondego and Raymond Walburn as Danglars.

Wrongly accused in a plot against the post-Napoleonic government in France, Edmond Dantes is arrested and imprisoned at the impenetrable Chateau d’If. Relegated to a dungeon cell, Dantes promises vengeance against the three conspirators who had plotted against him. Heading the list is his old friend Mondego, who has married Dantes’ fiancee. Dantes tunnels through the ancient stone walls where he meets an old prisoner named Abbe Faria. After 12 years, Dantes finally escapes with the help of Faria, who tells him of the secret Spada treasure hidden on the isle of Monte Cristo. With Faria now dead, Dantes claims the great treasure for himself, changes his identity to the Count of Monte Cristo, and sets his plan of vengeance in motion.

Directed by Rowland V. Lee, 1934’s The Count of Monte Cristo was selected by The New York Times as one of the best 1,000 movies ever made. Said Andre Sennwald of the Times in his original review (Sept. 27, 1934): “The Count of Monte Cristo…is still as passionate and grand as the waves that crash against the grim battlements of Chateau d’If. For almost two hours…it unfolds the classic story of the revenge of Edmond Dantes. Building steadily and powerfully to its feverish climax, the new film is constantly refreshing the spectator with the variety and shouting impact of its episodes.”

• The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Based on the 1982 Stephen King short story “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” this cinematic treasure has fast become one of the greatest cult pictures of all time. When banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, he is sent to notorious Shawshank Prison in Maine. Here, Andy is subjected to both the horrors and grinding monotony of prison life, where he methodically begins to tunnel his way out of his cell to a sewage pipe from which he eventually makes his escape after serving 19 years. While doing his time at Shawshank, Andy’s financial skills as a banker have been utilized by the corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), who has squirreled away over $370,000 in secret bank accounts. Upon making his escape, Andy assumes various identities, emptying the warden’s bank accounts and sending the secret books to a local newspaper. When the authorities finally arrive at Shawshank, sweet revenge is delivered on Norton, who commits suicide in his office rather than face the prospect of spending years behind his own prison’s walls. Meanwhile, Andy has slipped across the border into Mexico, where he later summons his good prison buddy, Red (Morgan Freeman), to join him after the latter is paroled.

Filmed primarily at the Mansfield Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, The Shawshank Redemption was completed in 67 days at a cost of $25 million. Interestingly, the movie only grossed a little more than $28 million during its first run in the United States, despite the fact that it had been nominated for seven Academy Awards. Later, Shawshank became a big renter on the home video circuit, eventually achieving cult film status, thanks in large part to Frank Darabont’s masterful screenplay and expert direction.

Said Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (Sept. 23, 1994): “The Shawshank Redemption is a movie about time, patience and loyalty – not sexy qualities, perhaps, but they grow on you during the subterranean progress of the story, which is about how two men serving life sentences in prison become friends and find a way to fight off despair.”

• Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Few penal institutions in history can match the sheer notoriety and name power of Alcatraz. Located 1-1/2 miles off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz – a.k.a. “The Rock” – operated as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 where it housed many of the country’s most dangerous and incorrigible prisoners. Among the notables were Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis, Doc Barker, and Robert Stroud, the famous “Birdman of Alcatraz.” During its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, 36 men tried to escape from Alcatraz in 14 separate attempts. Twenty-one were recaptured, six were shot and killed, two drowned, two were later executed, and five are still listed as missing. In 1962, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, attempted one of the most famous escapes from the island prison. Their bodies were never recovered, fueling speculation as to whether or not they had beaten the astronomical odds and gained their freedom.

Seventeen years later, producer/director Don Siegel and Paramount Pictures dramatized the infamous 1962 incident in Escape from Alcatraz. Heading the cast was Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, a cold, calculating con who’s determined to break out of Alcatraz despite the long odds and the warden’s pronouncement that “no one has ever escaped from Alcatraz, and no one ever will.” Morris recruits several other prisoners for his attempt, including the Anglin brothers (played by Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward). Using makeshift tools, the men methodically dig their way out of their cells, eventually making it to the roof and leaving behind improvised dummies back in their beds in order to throw off the guards. They then make their way down to the icy waters of San Francisco Bay, where crude rafts made of raincoats and other purloined items enable them to drift away from the prison. Later, after the escape is detected, the warden (played magnificently by Patrick McGoohan) and other officials find personal items belonging to the cons on Angel Island, but no bodies.

Released on June 22, 1979, Escape from Alcatraz was filmed on “The Rock” itself, with the production company laying down 15 miles of cable in order to connect the old island prison with electricity from the mainland. In addition, many of the buildings and cell blocks on the island were repaired and restored to their original early 1960s appearance for use in the film.

“For almost all of its length, Escape from Alcatraz is a taut and toughly wrought portrait of life in a prison,” reported Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times (June 27, 1979). “It is also a masterful piece of storytelling, in which the characters say little and the camera explains the action.”

• The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, Kwai was set at a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand during the Second World War. Housed in the camp are mostly British and Commonwealth soldiers, along with a lone American, a sailor named Shears (William Holden). Running the POW camp is a brutal commandant in the person of Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who forces the prisoners to build a badly-needed railway bridge. Eventually taking extreme pride in the project is Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), whose officers and men later complete the bridge, only to have it blown up by an Allied commando team. The great escape in this film is undertaken by Shears, who flees into the impenetrable jungle along with two other men, both of whom are killed by Japanese guards. Shears is shot as well, where he falls into a river and manages to swim downstream. The American is then taken in by friendly villagers, nursed back to health, and presented with a native boat stocked with supplies. While adrift on the ocean Shears is rescued by the British, who later dragoon him into leading a commando team back to the camp and the newly-constructed railway bridge.

Filmed predominantly in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), The Bridge on the River Kwai was both a big financial and critical success. Regarding the latter, Kwai won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (David Lean), Best Actor (Alec Guinness), and Best Screenplay (Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, two uncredited/blacklisted writers at the time who were eventually awarded their Oscars posthumously in 1984).

• No Man Is an Island (1962). Based on a true story, Jeffrey Hunter stars as sailor George R. Tweed, the last American serviceman left on Japanese-controlled Guam following the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. For three years, Tweed evades capture, eventually proving instrumental in the retaking of Guam by Allied forces in 1944. The real gem of this Universal-International film – billed as Island Escape in the United Kingdom – is Tweed’s internal struggle to understand why he is the lone survivor. The title of the movie, of course, comes from the John Donne poem.

“Mr. Hunter plays Tweed with efficient restraint, and Barbara Perez is fetching as an island girl who shelters him,” observed Bosley Crowther of The New York Times (Oct. 11, 1962). “The supporting cast is as quietly competent as the film as a whole.”

• Torn Curtain (1966). The “curtain” in this movie refers to the once vaunted Iron Curtain of Cold War fame which separated Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe from the free west. Paul Newman stars as Professor Michael Armstrong, an American physicist who seemingly defects to East Germany. Following him is his fiancee and fellow scientist, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews), who learns that Armstrong is acting as a double agent. Serving as Armstrong’s guide in the country is Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling). Gromek is actually an East German agent who is on to Armstrong’s secret mission – to steal defense secrets and bring them back to the west. Realizing that Gromek has penetrated his façade, Armstrong and his fiancee attempt to flee the country with Gromek hot on their trail. One of the most talked about scenes in the movie takes place at a farmhouse, where Armstrong and his contact (Carolyn Conwell) attempt to kill the burly Gromek through various means, succeeding only after they drag his bludgeoned body to an oven where they turn on the gas.

Made for $6 million, Torn Curtain was Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th film. (“Hitch” makes his cameo appearance early in the movie, where he can be seen sitting in a hotel lobby with a baby on his knee.) Filmed on location in Berlin and Copenhagen, Hitchcock’s espionage thriller is generally thought of as one of his weaker efforts, though many moviegoers, no doubt, will appreciate the picture’s harrowing escape sequences where Newman and Andrews desperately flee communist East Germany.

• The Counterfeit Traitor (1962). Based on the 1958 nonfiction book of the same name by Alexander Klein, The Counterfeit Traitor starred William Holden as Eric Erickson, a Brooklyn-born Swedish businessman who agrees to secretly spy for the Allies in World War II. Using his work as an oil broker as his cover, Erickson frequently travels from neutral Sweden to Nazi Germany, where he reports on what he sees to his Allied handlers in Stockholm. Erickson’s spy work takes a tremendous toll, as he alienates his wife and friends and eventually garners the suspicion of the feared German Gestapo. While imprisoned at Berlin’s Moabit Prison, Erickson is forced to watch the execution of his contact, Marianne Mollendorf (Lilli Palmer), along with two other prisoners, from a basement cell. Erickson, however, later regains his composure from the ordeal, convinces a senior German officer that he knew nothing of Marianne’s espionage activities and is then released.

While in Hamburg attending the funeral of a friend, Erickson is betrayed by the dead man’s son, Hans, a diehard Hitler Youth who has come across an incriminating letter. A Gestapo agent ferrets out the truth from the boy, forcing Erickson to flee the cemetery. He then heads to Hamburg’s red-light district, making contact with a woman who takes him to a dentist’s office the next morning. Here, the dentist confirms Erick-son’s identity via an x-ray and lays out his escape plan: Hamburg to Neuburg to Copenhagen to Sweden. The dentist, however, warns Erickson that there may be an informer along the route and advises him to postpone his departure for a few days. Erickson, armed with vital military information pinpointing the location of buzz bomb sites and jet fuel depots, says he can't wait and begins his perilous journey home. Eventually met by the Danish underground, Erickson is given forged identity papers, money, and a cyanide pill – to be used in the event of capture. Now in occupied Copenhagen, Erickson makes the crossing over to Sweden, hidden aboard a Danish fishing boat which is then stopped by a German border patrol cutter. The Germans board the boat, with Erickson and a Jewish man hidden behind a panel down below.

“An espionage thriller of high order, melodramatic and adventure-laden as all get-out but never forsaking an aura of genuineness…” crowed Variety (April 4, 1962).

• Seven Miles from Alcatraz S(1942). “A helpless girl trapped between desperate cons and enemy rats in a lonely lighthouse!” so read the stirring tagline from this escape picture made during the early years of World War II. When Champ Larkin (James Craig) and his buddy Jimbo (Frank Jenks) break out of Alcatraz, they make their way to a lighthouse in San Francisco Bay where they encounter the proprietor (George Cleveland), his daughter (Bonita Granville) and a nest of nasty German spies. The two escaped cons then give up their heard-earned freedom, battling the Nazi infiltrators as the latter try to make their getaway in a waiting German U-boat.

Premiering in New York City on Nov. 18, 1942, Seven Miles from Alcatraz is actually a fairly good escape picture, albeit of the low-budget type. Giving the movie a big thumbs-down, however, was Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times (Nov. 19, 1942), who opined: “The vital chemicals wasted in the manufacture of film for such an absurd and distasteful melodrama could have been put to far greater use in the making of explosives…Seven Miles from Alcatraz is also several miles from being good melodrama.”

• Midnight Express (1978). “When you’re busted for drugs over there, you’re in for the hassle of your life.” That old public service message from the 1970s never rang truer for one Billy Hayes, who was nabbed by Turkish authorities when he tried to smuggle out two kilos of hashish taped to his body at Yesilkoy International Airport in 1970. Hayes’ ordeal was later recounted in his 1977 best-selling book (written with William Hoffer), Midnight Express, which was then made into a motion picture by Columbia Pictures.

The film starred Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, who is tossed into a brutal Turkish prison following his arrest for drug smuggling. He is then visited by his father (Mike Kellin), who begins the long, arduous task of trying to free his son through the corrupt, complicated Turkish legal system. At his first trial, the 23-year-old Hayes is sentenced to four years in prison, but that stretch is eventually increased to 30 years following a review from the high court in Ankara. Already having served almost all of his original four-year sentence, Hayes is visited at the prison by his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle), who presents him with a photo album stuffed with hidden $100 bills. After a bribery attempt of a guard goes awry, Hayes steals a uniform and simply walks out a side door.

“Midnight Express is a classic prison movie, and definitely worth a look… unless you’re of Turkish descent and would rather not be offended,” notes the authoritative Web site

• The Defiant Ones (1958). When a prison truck overturns during a driving rainstorm, two chained prisoners, one white and one back (Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier), make their escape into the Southern countryside. Bitter enemies at first, they soon form an uneasy alliance as they try to avoid capture from a sympathetic county sheriff (Theodore Bikel), a fanatical state trooper (Charles McGraw) and their posse. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place when the two escaped cons are forced to jump into a clay pit filled with water after a horse-drawn wagon approaches. After several attempts, the two chained men finally free themselves from the pit, with Joker (Curtis) reaching the top and dragging Cullen (Poitier) with him.

Nominated for nine Academy Awards, The Defiant Ones was greeted with a number of favorable reviews, including this one from Arthur Knight in Saturday Review (July 26, 1958): “A distinguished motion picture…A film that Stanley Kramer, the motion picture industry, and every American citizen can be proud of…”

• The Fugitive (1993). Based on the popular 1963-67 television series, the big-screen, big-budget ($44 million) version starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Richard Kimble, a physician who is wrongly convicted of killing his wife. On his way to prison, Kimble is freed in a spectacular bus/train accident. Arriving on the scene is tenacious U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones), who assembles a team to track down the fleeing Kimble. It is believed the good doctor is headed back to Chicago where he is determined to find the one-armed man who he feels was responsible for his wife’s murder.

The Fugitive is a classic escape and pursuit picture, featuring one of the best scenes ever filmed in the genre: Richard Kimble’s dramatic plunge off a dam into the swirling waters of a reservoir below. Add to that several knock-down, drag-out fistfights, the cat-and-mouse chase across country and the conspiracy surrounding the death of Kimble’s wife, and you have one of the greatest escape pictures ever to hit the silver screen.

“The film version of The Fugitive turns out to be a smashing success, a juggernaut of an action-adventure saga that owes nothing to the past,” opined Janet Maslin of The New York Times (Aug. 6, 1993). “As directed sensationally by Andrew Davis and acted to steely perfection by Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones and a flawless supporting cast, it is a film whose every element conspires to sustain crisp intelligence and a relentless pace. Tight editing, a powerhouse score, adroit sound effects and a clever, inventive screenplay all contribute to the fever pitch. To put it simply, this is a home run.”

• Thirteen honorable mentions: The Killing Fields (1984), The Colditz Story (1955), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Escape from Devil's Island (1935), Young Dillinger (1965), The Birdmen (TV, 1971), Von Ryan's Express (1965), Stalag 17 (1953), The McKenzie Break (1970), Victory (1981), Escape from Iran: The Canadian Caper (TV, 1981), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Great Escape: The Untold Story (TV, 2001).

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