Prison movies have been a staple of cinema since the dawn of the motion picture industry in the early 20th century.
Movie directors such as Michael Curtiz, William Keighley, and Mervyn Leroy used incarceration-themed movies to expose what they believed was a dehumanizing penal system in the United States. From their perspective, American prisons were managed by sadistic guards and corrupt administrators who turned a blind eye to the violence all around them. Hollywood viewed penitentiaries as places where people were brutalized rather than reformed.
Warner Bros. Studios produced many of these movies in the 1930s. In contrast to the musicals from MGM and other studios that made films moviegoers could watch to escape the grim realities of the Great Depression, Warner Bros. used prison movies as a bully pulpit to address the social ills of the time. Gritty dramas such as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’’ and “Each Dawn I Die’’ advocated for reforms of the prison system. Later, Warner Bros. movies such as “Caged’’ in 1950 showed the inhuman conditions in women’s prisons as well.
To find the best prison movies of all time, 24/7 Wall St. considered audience and movie critic reviews from several sources. Included on the list are prisoner of war-themed movies as well as a film showing beloved cartoon characters escaping their version of prison.
Even though the prison genre depicts a bleak, helpless future for those incarcerated, many films hold out the possibility of redemption and the chance for a new life. Among these is “The Birdman of Alcatraz,’’ a story about a violent prisoner who develops an interest in canaries and writes books on the birds and their diseases. In “The Shawshank Redemption,’’ a man wrongly convicted of murder overcomes brutality from other inmates and an oppressive warden as he is unrelenting in his near 20-year plan of escape.
Here are the best prison movies of all time.