Prison-break movies

With the release of The Way Back this week, we look at some favourite films in the prison-break genre.

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Hitting the cinema screens this week is Peter Weir's The Way Back, an emotional drama set during the Second World War. The film stars Colin Farrell, Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris as escaped prisoners fleeing a Siberian Gulag, who must battle the elements and exhaustion as they head to India, no doubt for the warmer weather. The prison break movie has become a classic genre over the years, and here we look at some of our favourites.

The Great Escape (1963)

You know the story: 76 allied soldiers escape from a high-security German camp through a tunnel. All but three are recaptured or killed. Steve McQueen throws a baseball around, jumps over a barbed-wire fence on a motorbike and generally looks quite cool. In the UK at least, this prisoner-of-war classic has become a festive TV favourite, and was recently voted the film most British men would like to watch on Christmas Day.

Papillon (1973)

What do you do if you're wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to a life of hard labour on somewhere called Devil's Island off the coast of South America? Yes, that's right, you get stuck in and accept what's given to you. Alternatively, you can plot your escape, which is what Henri Charrière did back in the 1940s. From the autobiographical book of the same name, Papillon sees Steve McQueen (again) floating out to sea on a sack of coconuts for several days before eventually hitting the mainland. Thankfully, the film glances over Charrière's seven years of solitary confinement, which might have made for somewhat dreary viewing.

Midnight Express (1978)

If you haven't seen it already, don't be fooled by the romantic title. This film starts darkly and gets progressively worse. Being locked up in a Turkish prison is not much fun, especially if it's the one Billy Hayes was sent to (the film is based on a true story). What follows is several years of twisted insanity inside considerably less-than-seven-star accommodation and - eventually - escape by swimming over a river. Midnight Express, by the way, is slang for a prisoner's break-out attempt.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

Alcatraz. The name alone could send a shiver down the spine of any professional prison-breaker. Set on an island in San Francisco Bay, this jail was considered among the most inescapable (after all, it is surrounded by water), but that didn't stop Frank Morris and a few others giving it a stab in 1962. Clint Eastwood plays Morris, who digs through the walls of his cell with spoons, makes a papier-mâché dummy as a decoy and makes a raft out of raincoats. But did he make it to the mainland? Nobody knows… but he probably didn't. Sorry.

Escape from New York (1981)

It's the future. It's 1997 (yes, bear with us here). A crime increase of 400 per cent has seen Manhattan transformed into a giant maximum-security prison with one rule: you go in, you don't come out. Unfortunately, Air Force One has crash-landed within its impenetrable walls and the US president would really like to leave, please. As usual in these situations, there's only one man up to the task: the leather-jacketed, eye-patch wearing ne'er-do-well Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), who must battle an entire city of baddies and get the president back in time for his dinner (or was it a world peace summit?). Thankfully, a 2007 remake with rom-com hero Gerard Butler was shelved.

Escape to Victory (1981)

It's another wartime escape, but this time involving football for an added bonus. An utterly implausible line-up sees Bobby Moore, Michael Caine, Ossie Ardiles and Pelé (yes, the Pelé), join forces with a rather fresh-faced Sylvester Stallone as the Allied POW FC, set to face Third Reich United in a propaganda match to boost German morale. Despite the odds being stacked against them (would you believe it?), the good guys hold back the Nazi front line, Stallone emerges as the world's greatest ever goalkeeper and they all escape into the crowd.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

It has been declared illegal in 57 countries to make a list of prison films without including this feel-good classic. An innocent Tim Robbins spends two decades tunnelling through the walls of Shawshank State Prison using just a toothpick (OK, so it was a rock hammer), with only posters of Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe and Raquel Welch to hide his handiwork. There isn't a man alive who didn't feel like fistpumping the air when he finally crawls to freedom, collects the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt warden and - later - meets up with his prison pal Morgan Freeman on the beaches of Mexico. Such a shame that he's killed by a falling coconut just a week later (or was that in the sequel?).

Cube (1997)

OK, so this one stretches the concept of a prison somewhat. A group of random strangers wake up one morning to find themselves not dribbling into their pillows, but stuck in a rather bizarre Kafkaesque nightmare; a seemingly infinite series of cube-shaped rooms filled with deadly booby traps and no instruction manual. Nobody knows why they're there, but they each start going slightly mental (as you might) and killing each other, which doesn't help the situation. Eventually, they figure out a mathematical solution to escape. But who will make it out alive? Watch it. Go on, it's really quite good.

Chicken Run (2000)

Hurray! Chickens can escape too! This Aardman Animations affair takes all the silliness of Wallace and Gromit and chucks it into a farmyard. A ragtag band of bird-brained, er, chickens are facing the chop after their grumpy welly-booted masters decide to switch production from eggs to (non-veg) pies. Suddenly, the unexpected arrival of Rocky, the rather boisterous rooster (voiced by Mel Gibson), gives them the impetus they need to escape. Hilarity ensues, the pie-making machine explodes in a mushroom cloud of gravy and the chickens head off to free-range luxury.

Rescue Dawn (2007)

Christian Bale went on a rather extreme diet to prepare for his role as Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who escaped from a POW camp in the Laos jungle during the Vietnam War. Directed by the art house hero Wernor Herzog, the film studies themes of war, human torture and capture in the director's own unmistakable manner. Interesting fact: because it's easier to gain weight than lose it, the film was shot in reverse, with boney Bale back to his usual, cheery self by the end of production.