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Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison
by Jon Schuller

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Over many decades of film-making, there have been countless movies about men being locked away from society, for real or imagined crimes. Pictures about ancient times, or later centuries it's all about taking away one of life's most precious gifts, freedom. State-sponsored institutions, like the Spanish Inquisition; or, perhaps any royal decree stating that a certain group of people were no longer allowed to live in a particular country; or a political movement found to be breaking laws. All of these excuses and many more have existed for ages to subdue dissent and keep the powerful in power. Since the movies began, portraying and dramatizing life behind walls and bars has been the center of their stories. By my estimate more than 200 films have been dedicated to this classic topic. Here are a few famous titles:

Birdman of Alcatraz
Cool Hand Luke
Brute Force (please read my column "It's Inevitable. Comparisons Will Be Made" July, 2018)
The Green Mile I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang
Escape From Alcatraz
White Heat
The Hill (please read my column "I'm Climbing, Damn It. OK?" July, 2017)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
The Glass House
The Longest Yard (the 1974 original)
The Jericho Mile (please read my column "I'm Running as Fast As I Can" September 2016)
Riot in Cell Block 11
Mean Machine (the 2001 British version of The Longest Yard)
. . . . and so many more.

In September, 1994, a prison movie premiered that defied the-then unpopularity of all prison movies, new or old. No one really believed that another film about men institutionalized could be interesting or different than all the others before it. But The Shawshank Redemption, loosely based on Stephen King's "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" (1982), challenged critics and audiences alike and became a success. It starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, Morgan Freeman as Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding, Bob Gunton as Warden Samuel Norton, William Sadler as Heywood, Clancy Brown as Captain Byron Hadley, Gil Bellows as Tommy Williams and James Whitmore as Brooks Hatlen. A great supporting cast of character actors rounded out the other prisoners.

Andy Dufresne is accused, tried and convicted of murdering his wife and her lover in 1947. He's sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary and becomes friends with a lifetime inmate, Ellis "Red" Redding, who takes Andy under his wing. But Andy's nave and gets attacked mercilessly by a gang called "The Sisters" and Bogs, the leader. One day, Andy hears the captain of the guards, Hadley, complaining about being overtaxed; Andy offers some financial help and soon, Andy's advising all the guards with his financial wisdom. Warden Norton asks Andy to help with the prison's money system (which includes some
"schemes" of the warden), the guards protect Andy from any further attacks and soon, Andy is offered a job in the prison library, helping the elderly Brooks Hatlen who runs it. He's given a movie poster of Rita Hayworth for his cell and a small knife to carve rocks into chess pieces.

Andy becomes active, petitioning the state for more books and funds to rebuild the library. He counsels the guards in the library and begins to offer education courses there. Brooks retires but cannot adjust to civilian life; he commits suicide. The warden has invented work programs to put the convicts to work, but in reality, he's making his money out of the deal and putting the funds into several local bank accounts under an assumed name. He's threatened Andy not to reveal any of the inner workings of the scheme or else Andy will be put back into the general population and suffer more attacks by "the Sisters." Andy has no choice.

In 1965 a young man, Tommy Williams, joins the convicts and eventually reveals that he was locked up with a thief who admitted to killing Andy's wife and lover. Andy goes to the warden to ask that his case be re-opened. The warden says no, and orders Hadley to kill Tommy.

Andy is sent to solitary confinement for two months as another warning. When he's released, Red sends him a new poster of Raquel Welch. He's alone in his cell a lot, carving his rocks every night.

The next morning the guards issue roll call but Andy
doesn't appear outside his cell. The guards, and eventually, the warden enter his cell but he's gone. The warden, really angry, throws one of Andy's rocks at the poster and it goes through the paper. Andy has been digging a tunnel in the wall for years with his tiny knife. He escaped the night before, through sewers, rain and mud. The next morning he appears as a well-dressed man at each bank with the warden's accounts, withdrawing all the money there. He's also sent duplicates of the account books to the local newspaper, implicating the warden and Hadley in the schemes. The warden commits suicide.

Andy had given Red specific instructions if Red was ever paroled; where to find money and how to get to a small seaside village in Mexico, Zihuatanejo. The film ends as we see Red walking along a beautiful deserted beach, approaching Andy who's working on an old boat.

The Shawshank Redemption has been given many labels, especially religious ones, concluding that faith keeps us alive as well as hope. Andy never gave up as he toiled for years to dig the tunnel, slowly but passionately. I believe the movie succeeded because all of us, sooner or later, must fall back on our hope and faith as well as family and friends to support us, believe and encourage us through the upsets of human existence. Even when the picture is bleak, even hopeless, we must persevere with super-human strength. The film dramatizes the journey in specific terms, as well as love and hope.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

A Story of Bravery, Truth and Devotion

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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