Contemplative Prison Films As Zeitgeist

Socio-political Film Studies was one of my favorite things from College. Here is the newest of my regular series.

There were so many Prison Dramas in the 70s that are of a certain similar flavor, it bears noting how and why these similarities were printed and what it suggests about the zeitgeist of the era. Prison films in general boil down to a struggle between men, machines and the mincer.

In “Papillon,” Steve McQueen the one intent on escape, says to his buddy, the crooked guards’ best-friend, the dutifully bribing Dustin Hoffman character:

Papillon: That’s why you should run. Now, Louis. While you’ve got a chance.
Dega: But I have a chance without running.
Papillon: Me, they can kill. You, they own.

That is the key to understanding prison films, and I think, their reflection of the zeitgeist of the era. But first, some excavation of the genre.

There are prison movies where planning and executing the escape is most of the narrative (Escape from Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, Each Dawn I Die, There Was A Crooked Man, Cool Hand Luke, Mrs. Soffel, Papillon, Down by Law, Prison Break (1938), Crashout (1955), Midnight Express (1978).

However, a film about prison does not necessarily have to be set in one. David Hayman’s film Silent Scream (1990) concerns the suffering and mental anguish brought on by incarceration, yet this is not predominantly set in prison. We’re No Angels (1955), Breakout (1975), In The Name Of The Father (1995) and Sleepers (1996) could all be seen as concerned with prison, yet in all of them a significant part of the film takes place outside the prison walls.

Many prison movies place the escape fairly early on and the rest of the flick is about being a fugitive (Runaway Train, A Perfect World, Out of Sight, The Defiant Ones, I Was A Fugitive from a Chain Gang, We’re No Angels).

There have been 300 films made since 1910 which are at least partly about civil incarceration. All of them address the conflict of the machine versus man, conformity versus independence.

The constant battle with authority punctuates most prison films of the sixties and seventies. Often depicted as a battle to survive, inmate defiance has been central to the prison movie. Robert Stroud’s refusal to be institutionalized in Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) is a prime example of such a battle. There is a constant struggle throughout the film between the Governor and Stroud culminating in Stroud’s tirade against the prison system:

you want your prisoners to dance out the gates like puppets on a string with rubber stamp values impressed by you with your sense of conformity, your sense of behavior even your sense of morality…When they’re outside they’re lost – automatons just going through the motions of living but underneath there’s a deep deep hatred for what you did to them…The result? More than half come back to prison.

The battle with authority is sometimes physical with brutal exchanges between officers and inmates (McVicar (1980), Scum (1983) Lock Up (1989) for example). While at other times it is expressed in mental victories over the system – broadcasting music over the exercise yard PA from the Governor’s office in The Shawshank Redemption (1995); deliberately losing the big race in The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962) and getting Alcatraz closed down in Murder In The First (1995). The target for inmate battles is often represented as a huge faceless system of which the guards and the Warden are only part: inmates must fight the machinery of punishment.

The ‘system’ with its impenetrable sets of rules and regulations, grind on relentlessly. The effect of such a mechanistic depiction of punishment is to highlight both the individual fight for survival and the inherent process of dehumanization which comes with incarceration in the system. The monotony and regulation of prison life is most often depicted by the highly structured movement of prisoners.

From prison films of the 1930s and 40s like Numbered Men (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), San Quentin (1937), Men Without Souls (1940) and Brute Force (1947) through to recent movies like Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Shawshank Redemption (1995) shots of inmates trudging along the huge steel landings, up and down stairwells to and from their cells has been used to convey the system within prison:

Rows of cell doors open simultaneously and hundreds of prisoners tramp in unison to the yard. In the cavernous mess hall, they sit down to eat the mass-produced fodder their keepers call food. The camera tracks along a row of prisoners to reveal faces mainly individuated by the manner in which they express their revulsion at the meal. (Action line from “The Big House” screenplay)

This uniformity in movement not only underlines the highly structured routine of the prison but extends the machinery image further. The motion of inmates mirror the workings of a machine – prisoners are the cogs that whir around, driving the huge mechanism of punishment unswervingly onward.

Prison films of the seventies used this to effectively communicate the emotional landscape of the socio-political ethos that permeated the decade. American Political society had fulfilled Eisenhower’s warning from his farewell address. The industrial military complex had an office in the West Wing, multinational corporations and the richest .1% of the elites who ran them were sprinting out of the best reaches of governments to regulate them – even if there had been will to do so. The amount of power an individual could exercise against this vast, corrupt, sinister machinery was extinguishing.

Whereas earlier in the century, in the benchmark prison film, “I Am A Fugitive from A Chain Gang” (1932), James Allen escapes the chain gang only to live in constant fear of being caught. In a powerful final scene, Allen says a last goodbye to the woman he loves – Helen:

ALLEN: But I haven’t escaped, they’re still after me, they’ll always be after me. I’ve had jobs but I can’t keep them – something happens, someone turns up. I hide in the rooms all day and travel by night: no friends, no rest, no peace…keep moving that’s all that’s left for me. Forgive me Helen, I had to take a chance to see you tonight, just to say goodbye.
HELEN: Oh Jim, it was all gonna be so different
ALLEN: It is different, they’ve made me different. (hears a noise and, startled, whispers) I’ve gotta go
HELEN: I can’t let you go like this, can’t you tell me where you’re going (shakes his head) Will you write ? (shakes head again) Did you need any money ? (shakes head, backing away from her and staring wildly) But Jim, how do you live ?
ALLEN: I steal.

In that film, the prison is the machine of society circa 1932 – an American society broken by the Depression. In early prison films, people are broken, desperate and destitute calling out for systemic reform. Films such as Hell’s Highway (1932) and Blackwell’s Island (1939) show prison as ‘the ultimate metaphor of social entrapment’ (Roffman & Purdy 1981, p.26) with the emphasis on the brutality of prisons and chain gangs robbing men of their individuality and freedom:

the evil in the men’s prisons appears to have been transformed into some larger entity. More often than not, that larger entity takes the form of a political or big city “machine”. The effect of this was to encourage the audience to … vent whatever animosity they might be able to muster on … the “system” that seemed, to the thirties audience, to control the very life of every honest, hard working (or unemployed) man in America. (Querry 1976, p.159)

Prison films of the 70s concentrated instead on the conflict of inmates battling with the often faceless prison authorities. Paul Newman as Luke Jackson is determined to do his two years as hard time in Cool Hand Luke. Jackson refuses to submit to authority, facing unmerciful beatings from the guards and inmates alike, and memorably wins a bet to eat fifty hard boiled eggs.

For his non-conformity, Steve McQueen in the title role of Papillon (1973) does two lengthy spells in solitary confinement, forced to consume insects to survive the second spell; while Paul Crew (Burt Reynolds) refuses to throw the cons versus guards football game in The Mean Machine (1974) realizing his sentence will be increased and his life made a misery by the Warden.

Although used primarily to illustrate injustice, the hard and fast prison rules serve to emphasize the unyielding processing of inmates through the penal system. This is expressed through seemingly trivial regulations such as no talking during hard labor in Papillon (1973) and Scum (1983); inmates to refer to each other only by their prison name in Wedlock (1990) and so on. Introductory brutal beatings pepper the prison films of the 70s such as in The Mean Machine (1974) where Paul Crew (Burt Reynolds) is beaten by Head Guard Captain Kennauer for giving him ‘a look.’

The representation of the prison as a machine in cinema is fundamental to the prison movie of the seventies. For it is from this idea that the other themes flow: escape from the machine, riot against the machine, the role of the machine in processing and breaking inmates and, entering the “free” world as a new inmate.

Papillon: Me, they can kill. You, they own.

It is better to be prisoner than property — but it is best to be free of whole machine.

-Querry, R. (1973) “Prison Movies: An Annotated Filmography 1921 – present” in Journal Of Popular Film vol 2 Spring pp.181-197.
-Roffman, P. & Purdy, J. (1981) The Hollywood Social Problem Film Bloomington, Indiana University Press.

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