The James Clayton Column: Hanging out in a Hollywood prison

The arrival of Sly-and-Arnie thriller Escape Plan leaves James pondering the living conditions in other Hollywood film prisons...

“Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” asks Captain Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) in Airplane!, the classic Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker spoof from 1980. Joey doesn’t respond to that question or Oveur’s other teasers – “Do you like films about gladiators?” and “Have you ever seen a grown man naked?” – but I think we can safely assume that the kid has never done time in a cell in Turkey.

Employing our Sherlock-style deduction skills, we take the wholesome pre-pubescent All-American boy’s claim “I’ve never been on a plane before!” as conclusive. Unless Joey is delusional, a severe amnesiac or a chronic liar, he has not had a Midnight Express experience.

Still, that was over 30 years ago and in that time Joey has undoubtedly grown up and had plenty of opportunity to get up to all kinds of trouble – possibly even the kind of trouble that leads to incarceration in a foreign country. Some kids make positive life choices – hard study, work for charity, loving relationships built on affection and mutual respect – and some kids make bad choices. Deciding you’re going to smuggle hashish out of Istanbul Airport is a bad choice, kids. Joey, I hope you made good choices.

Anyway, if you do certain things – illegal things – you will be arrested by law enforcement agents. You will then be processed by the criminal justice system and possibly found guilty of the crime you’ve been charged with. Your punishment may then be a prison sentence and at that point you might want to dig out Midnight Express to see what you’ve got yourself in to. (It’s even more relevant if you’ve broken the law on the Bosporus.)

Ad – content continues below

Having seen Midnight Express, I’ve got a pretty fair idea that Turkish jail isn’t a pleasant place at all. The same is true regardless of the geographical location of the prison – you do not want to be incarcerated anywhere. I appreciate this thanks to the pop cultural depictions of inmate life that I’ve absorbed and my own real world understanding.

Loss of liberty is tragic and traumatic. The worst time in my own life was the half-year I was cooped up in a hospital ward and that experience truly showed me that freedom is the most precious thing a human being can have. That spell of confinement undoubtedly fuelled my enthusiasm for prison escape flicks and prison escape flicks make sense because those institutions are always something that you should want to escape from.

The only exception comes in the shape of the ultra-progressive humane rehabilitation facilities of Norway but they don’t count because Norway is a utopian fantasy populated by trolls and Roald Dahl fabrications. In conclusion, jails are the most awful places and you don’t want to find yourself physically spending any time in one. This is worth bearing in mind as you go about your criminal enterprises. Once again, I urge you to make good choices.

My belief that incarceration behind bars is the most terrible of all fates is supported by a multitude of movie depictions. Joining Midnight Express in the ‘Doin’ Time for Crimes in Foreign Climes’ DVD boxset I was given years ago, Papillon proves that a life sentence on a penal colony reduces even ultra-cool icons like Steve McQueen to abject wretchedness.

Devil’s Island exile alongside Dustin Hoffman is an extreme case scenario but things don’t get much better if I come back home to the high security facilities of Britain. I’m not getting pretty pictures of Her Majesty’s Pleasure from, for instance, A Clockwork Orange (looks grim), Bronson (looks even grimmer) or Hunger (you’re literally in a world a shit).

These austere shitholes are crowded with the sick and venal scum of the universe and are run by tyrannical brutes. The decoration is depressingly drab, the atmosphere is unsavoury and the feng shui is all out of alignment. Plus you have no freedom and are forced to live in constant fear, with no control over your now-worthless life, waiting out tedious days in a dreary and tedious nightmare that is likely to chip away what remains of your sanity.

Ad – content continues below

I definitely don’t want to be locked up inside such a nasty space (or, rather, ‘anti-space’). Pretty boys like me don’t do well in prison. I’m remembering the “You’re going to have an arsehole like a clown’s pocket” line from The Parole Officer and I’m starting to feel very scared.

Why then, when I cross the Atlantic and engage with Hollywood prison movies do things suddenly change? Why, with all my aforementioned dread, am I so eager to immerse myself in American stories of cell life? Why, ahead of Escape Plan’s UK release am I racing to the cinema all psyched up to spend time inside with Arnie and Sly Stallone?

Those A-list action hero names are important because a lot of classic Hollywood prison pictures are built around a charismatic icon. Life in the clink is softened by the shining aura of a star, and that’s definitely the case for the ’80s macho action hero match-up of Escape Plan.

Mikael Håfström’s fresh feature – formerly titled The Tomb – is following a fine long-standing film tradition. Whereas real life prisons are populated by all kinds of insalubrious lowlife, the jails of fiction contain interesting, charming characters that you can easily warm to. They have a certain presence and appear as appealing personalities. Being in thrall to the likes of, say, Clint Eastwood and Paul Newman, I’m happy to hang around in an American penitentiary for a while. Even the grot and subzero temperatures of the Alaskan facility at the start of Runaway Train seems bearable when you’re distracted by the captivating energies of Jon Voigt and a young ‘n’ spunky Eric Roberts.

The heartbreaking truth is that life in the hole is not all happy bromantic bonding, kicking back with convivial, actually-quite-handsome homies in the can. I see those sweet scenes with Andy, Red and all the guys sharing a beer while they tar the roof in The Shawshank Redemption and realise that it’s all an idyllic fantasy. In real prison, Morgan Freeman is not your best friend, your brethren are not all well-meaning, well-adjusted folk and ‘the Man’ will not let you organise a library. It’s definitely not going to be anything like the luxury experience of Goodfellas in which mafia men pretty much have the run of the joint, enjoy 5-star hospitality and seem to have a pretty sweet life eating homemade meatballs while schmucks on the outside do all the dirty work.

Hollywood pictures present prison through a rose-tinted filter and give us a distorted representation that diminishes the actual horror of life behind bars but that’s not necessarily a bad – or even dishonest – thing. First-and-foremost, filmmakers seek to entertain audiences and tell a good story. If you want to get a grip on the actual truth about prison you can either watch a documentary or do something despicable that’ll result in a criminal sentence. (Don’t do that. Make good choices, kids.)

Ad – content continues below

What you get with The Shawshank Redemption is the optimum cinematic experience – a beautifully composed motion picture that tells you a life-affirming story of character and depth. It’s so moving that it’s managed to mark itself out as the perennial ‘Greatest Movie of All-Time’ on the IMDb Top 250 list, and it’s worthy of that position. Whether the depiction of prison is stylised and slightly lacking in watertight authenticity isn’t important here – what’s important is the human resonance and that also applies to Cool Hand Luke, Escape From Alcatraz, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang or any other classic jailhouse flick you care to recall.

Prisons are inhuman spaces that make ideal and convenient settings in which to tell resolutely human stories. Contained, claustrophobic and highly pressurised, they’re the perfect stage for a star name to show off the full range of their acting abilities and deliver a dramatic performance of powerhouse intensity.

Ultimately, prison movies are all about the individuals (whether it be one solitary inmate or a small gang of them) as a microcosmic embodiment of humanity as a whole – not actually about the system or any issues of law and justice. The point is that these immense personalities cannot and will not be contained by those bars, because Arnie, Sly, Eastwood, McQueen et al are just too darn cool and charismatic to be broken by the Man and his oppressive control. By extension, the subtextual moral is that the human spirit can’t be limited and that subjugated souls will always find freedom.

This is where Hollywood prison flicks differ – they tend toward the inspirational rather than functioning as fear-inducing sermons warning audiences of the punishment that awaits those who undertake an ill-advised career move into crime. These features are uplifting and celebrate humanity and its greatest virtues rather than condemn the scum of the species. Watch these movies and see the optimism and the exalted themes and values – the indomitability of human spirit; strength and resolution; patience and fortitude; the triumph of friendship and faith over oppressive adversity; the value of hope and freedom.

Freedom, is of course, always possible and, indeed, inevitable in Hollywood prison flicks. And that, Joey, is the key, appealing word that characterises the distinction between American jailhouse flicks and lives of crime and jail time in the real world – escapism.

James Clayton has never been in a Turkish prison and doesn’t intend to ever visit one unless someone like Arnie or Sly Stallone is on hand to help him bust out. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. 

Ad – content continues below