Escape from Alcatraz ..or something

In a curious echo of Christmases past I watched Escape from Alcatraz this Christmas. The echo was down to the fact that the prison escape and prison literature (prison lit) genre has featured pretty heavily in previous Christmases, albeit largely in the form of The Great Escape. I am not entirely sure what the attraction of the genre is, but it seems to exert a gravitational pull of sorts. In fact now I come to think about it I have also been listening to Folsom Untold, which is an Audible documentary-style account of the Johnny Cash album recorded live at a prison gig. I have also always been a fan of The Shawshank Redemption; another prison break film, based on the Stephen King short story. My recent renewed interest is due to upcoming plans to visit San Francisco and hopefully Alcatraz. Again, rather strangely, on my last visit to the U.S.A I read the Stephen King short story collection which included the story which provided the inspiration for Shawshank. This all gives rise to many questions including what is the attraction of prison lit, why is it American dominated and why indulge at Christmas? Before briefly considering all of this I will endeavour to summarise the titular film for the uninitiated.

Escape from Alcatraz is the true story of 3 inmates who attempt to escape from what was considered the most secure prison in the world. Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Dirty Harry) plays Frank Morris, the leader of the group and Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) plays the vindictive prison warden. The real life escape in 1962 precipitated the closure of the facility in 1963. The film depicts Morris and his cohorts plotting and preparing their escape. They dig through their cell walls, using a canteen-acquired spoon adapted into a mini shovel. As they explore the possible exit route beyond their cell walls they leave behind papier-mache dummies to make it look like they remain fast asleep, like well behaved prisoners. One of the most memorable scenes occurs when it looks as if their plan is going to be rumbled as a prison officer is looking long and hard at Morris’ papier-mache alter ego as if he has worked out it is not real. In a dramatic scene, which nevertheless requires you to willingly suspend disbelief, we see the officer enter the cell and shake Morris only to find the real Morris has now returned to his cell and he innocently asks what’s up in a bleary eyed manner. The denouement shows Morris et al decide to proceed with their escape plan a little early due to the unwanted attentions of another prisoner who’s threats to kill Morris risk derailing the whole plan. In the event 1 of the escape party does not have the heart for it on the night but the other 3 seemingly make good their escape through the hole in the cell wall, onto the roof, down the side of the building, over a barbed wire fence and into the treacherous waters with the aid of a makeshift raft.

The next morning a massive manhunt ensues. No bodies are found but McGoohan is keen not to be the Warden in post when Alcatraz loses its reputation for never having any succesful escapees. To this end he insists the men must have drowned. The film suggests otherwise however, and in a moment of poetic licence we see the Warden picking up a chrysanthem from the water’s edge on nearby Angel Island, after being told the plant is not indigenous to the island. This is significant as Morris had befriended a character in Alcatraz called Doc who was an artist with an interest in growing chrysanthemums. The clear implication is that the escapees had made it to Angel Island. In reality no conclusive evidence ever surfaced to indicate whether Morris and co survived or not. In 1979 an FBI report concluded that the men were likely to have drowned in the freezing waters of San Francisco Bay. The film hints at the suggestion that that would be a self serving finding for the authorities keen to maintain the perfect reputation of the correctional facility. The fact that Alcatraz was shut down in 1963, 1 year after the escape, is less suggestive of confidence in the prison.

Although they did not watch this film with me, I suspect I may have planted a seed so that my kids are also in danger of catching the prison lit bug. I mentioned to them that Alcatraz must surely have been the inspiration for their hero J K Rowling’s Azkaban. Come to mention it it is probably not their first foray into the field either as I have also subjected them to Porrridge re runs.

As for why prison lit has an eduring attraction I suspect it comes down to (excuse the pun) escapism. Most of us have not experienced incarceration and so it offers an incite into a different world. I am not sure if the genre is any more American dominated than any other aspect of media. Certainly mainstream movies remain American dominated. In my case I have probably been more interested in the American incarnations of prison lit but this is really just a specific expression of a generalised interest in all things Americana. Why indulge at Christmas? The cynics among us might suggest a link to escaping relatives with whom we may otherwise be drawn into seasonal disharmony. I would suggest however that Christmas is itself the ultimate in escapism in that it takes us away from the humdrum elements that may lurk in our everyday lives. Seen in this light watching a prison flick at Christmas makes perfect sense!

Until the next time, I’ll be off to find the river.

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