Nothing is more daring than a prison escape. Careful planning, coordination, and perfect execution are what it takes to successfully complete this kind of mission and some are not always lucky. Thankfully, there are dozens of films that even the most novice, two-timing crooks can learn from.
From classics of the Golden Era of Hollywood to more independent affairs, there’s a prison bust film that will surely suit the needs of any viewer. These are the greatest prison escape films to watch, ranked by their IMDb score.
Updated on October 24th, 2020 by Mark Birrell: Every movie fan is looking for a little escape most of the time and there’s nothing quite as engrossing as a great prison break story. With so many great examples from almost the entire breadth of cinematic history, it can be easy to overlook some of the best. So here are 5 extra prison escape films that you’d be lucky to get locked up with.
15 The Way Back (7.3/10)
Based around a much-disputed legend of a long walk to freedom taken by escaped prisoners from a Siberian gulag, The Way Back is a sprawling survival drama in the spirit of director Peter Weir’s most sweeping epics.
The escape from the gulag is really the simplest part of the main characters’ ordeal but, of course, that isn’t their real prison. Their 4000-mile journey across just about every kind of beautifully barren landscape imaginable wears them down to their cores and Weir never loses sight of the emotional details even in the most enormous backdrops.
14 Rescue Dawn (7.3/10)
Werner Herzog is a director known for showcasing the spirit and triumph of man through the face of adversity. His 2006 Vietnam war film, Rescue Dawn, stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a US pilot whose plane is shot down in the country of Laos.
The film is an intense look at his revolt and eventual escape with another prisoner. It’s another prime example of Bale’s range as an actor and Herzog’s commitment behind the camera.
13 King of Devil’s Island (7.5/10)
A dramatization of life in a boy’s prison on the Norwegian island of Bastøy in the early 20th century which leads to an insurrection by the detainees, King of Devil’s Island is an unforgiving–but deeply affecting–drama.
Stellan Skarsgård leads a talented cast as the critically out of touch director of the prison. But it’s the boys themselves who shine the brightest, creating an enveloping criminal world and unbreakably tough bonds of loyalty that could go toe to toe with the most seasoned gangster sagas.
12 The Defiant Ones (7.6/10)
Stanley Kramer’s 1958 drama, The Defiant Ones, is a thoughtful and tense film about the struggles of race relations in the 50s. Two convicts seize an opportunity to escape from a chain gang while chained together, despite hating each other.
Starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, this film won two Oscars, with both actors being nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role. This was a landmark, as Potier was the first black actor to be nominated for the award.
11 Midnight Express (7.6/10)
Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is a tough film to watch though it’s a seminal prison escape story. College student Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is arrested and sent to a Turkish prison for attempting to smuggle hash out of Istanbul.
Based on Hayes’s account of his time in a Turkish prison, the film takes many liberties with its story. In spite of that, Parker’s direction and the performances of the cast are all excellent. The highlight of the film, however, is easily Giorgio Moroder’s Oscar-winning score.
10 Escape From Alcatraz (7.6/10)
Don Siegel’s (Dirty Harry, The Beguiled) 1979 prison escape film is a classic in his filmography. Escape From Alcatraz stars Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, a bank robber held at the infamous and inescapable prison. He and two others devise a plan to bust out of it.
The true story of this daring escape was one of Siegel’s final films, leaving a mark on not only his filmography but on the sub-genre of prison escape pictures for years to come.
9 Down By Law (7.8/10)
Jim Jarmusch directed this black-and-white prison film about three convicts. It stars Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni as three men who were arrested, with the first being incarcerated by accident. While most prison escape films focus on these complicated and intricate schemes of escaping, this one is unique in focusing on how these convicts interact with each other.
Jarmusch’s penchant for snappy dialogue along with cinematographer Robby Müller’s slow-paced and deliberate camerawork make this one of the more interesting movies about prison.
8 Papillon (8.0/10)
Two prisoners form an unlikely friendship during their respective life-sentence in a South American prison. During this time, one of the prisoners plots an escape and kicks off one of the most daring plots in film history.
Starring acting legend Steve McQueen and a young Dustin Hoffman, the two shine in this thriller. Papillon was also written by famed and formerly blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. It was even remade in 2018.
7 The Grand Illusion (8.1/10)
A group of French POWs in World War I ceaselessly plot their escape in this iconic anti-war drama from revered auteur filmmaker Jean Renoir.
Much like with the director’s following masterpiece, The Rules of the Game, the insights into European culture and its decay are made incomparably poignant by the film’s proximity to the beginning of the Second World War.
6 Cool Hand Luke (8.1/10)
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” Paul Newman stars in one of his most famous roles as Luke Jackson, a laid back southern man who does not play by the rules of the warden. The other prisoners take a liking to him, hailing him as a hero and leader of the group.
His attempt to escape goes wrong but his fighting spirit is what makes Luke an icon. Men can be broken but their spirit cannot, that’s what audiences are left with after everything is said and done.
5 I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (8.2/10)
Adapted from the experiences of Robert Elliott Burns on a Georgia chain gang after returning home to a life of a drifter from World War I, this 1930s crime drama is just as exciting and pertinent today as it was almost a century ago.
I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang may not sound like a movie with as wide a scope as it has but the barbarity of the chain gang itself is only a part of the story’s depiction of the wider prison of a corrupt and self-perpetuating criminal system.
4 The Great Escape (8.2/10)
One of the greatest prison escape films ever, this thriller stars Steve McQueen and an excellent ensemble cast of characters. After being held prisoner in a war camp during World War II, allied soldiers prepare to break out over a hundred of their own by any means necessary.
The film is most notable due to an elaborate motorcycle jump though it is so much more than that. The determination and strength of the soldiers are among the best put to screen.
3 Toy Story 3 (8.3/10)
When the lovable Toy Story crew are donated to a daycare run by a tyrannical teddy bear, they decide to devise a plan to break out and return home to their beloved Andy. What makes this prison escape so special is how it references dozens of other movies before it. Nods to The Great Escape and Escape From Alcatraz are shown in abundance.
It’s an emotional journey featuring characters countless kids grew up with and one of the very finest animated movies of the 2010s.
2 A Man Escaped (8.3/10)
In stark contrast to Renoir’s The Grand Illusion, Robert Bresson’s devoutly ascetic war movie displays the unfeeling brutality of the Nazi occupation of France through one prisoner’s experience.
Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, A Man Escaped is timelessly tense and the cold, objective level of detail in the construction of every part of the escape makes it all feel so much more real than most people would care to get to such a harrowing experience.
1 The Shawshank Redemption (9.3/10)
One of the highest-rated movies on IMDb just so happens to be about prison. This 1994 drama details the story of a prisoner’s hope for escape and his friendship with another inmate. Using narration and playing with the passage of time, this film tells one of the most emotional and iconic stories of a prison break out there.
A classic for sure, one that was not recognized by the Oscars as it famously lost its Best Picture nod to Forrest Gump. At least its legacy lives on.
NEXT: The Shawshank Redemption: 10 Differences Between The Book & The Film
Batman: Robin’s 8 Best Costumes In Live Action
About The Author