- From Cube to The Shawshank Redemption to Snowpiercer, this is our pick of films about desperate characters seeking freedom
Matt Glasby, 29 Jul :
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in a still from The Shawshank Redemption, one of the great films about escape. Photo: Courtesy of Park Circus/Warner Bros.
Tired of being stuck in one place and longing for release? These films about the quest for freedom will match your mood.
1. The Great Escape (1963)
The grandaddy of the genre, John Sturges’ World War II drama tells the extraordinary true story of a mass 1944 breakout from the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III.
Sturges specialised in ensemble adventures such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976), so he knew how to make the most of a heavyweight cast (including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson) and the film’s 172-minute runtime.
What emerges is forensic in detail rather than epic in scale, showing the prisoners’ painstaking efforts to build three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, under the noses of the German guards, then make a bid for freedom.
Although the film takes a number of liberties, such as increasing the American contribution and adding a motorcycle chase for McQueen, the figures are correct. Seventy-six men succeeded in escaping through Harry. Of these, three made it to freedom and 73 were recaptured. Fifty of those were killed by the Gestapo, the wartime Nazi regime’s secret police. Paul Brickhill’s 1950 source book is dedicated “to the fifty”.
Steve McQueen in a still from The Great Escape (1963). Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Based on a 1982 novella by Stephen King, to which writer-director Frank Darabont bought the rights for US$5,000, The Shawshank Redemption flopped on release, but is now considered one of the greatest prison escape movies ever made.
Though beautifully written, shot and acted, what sets it apart is an act of cinematic sleight of hand so dastardly it beggars belief. For the best part of two-and-a-half hours – that’s 19 years in screen time – we watch poor Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) doing very hard time for a crime he didn’t commit through the eyes of new best friend Red (Morgan Freeman).
King, it transpires, never cashed Darabont’s cheque, instead returning it, framed, with a note which said: “In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve.” Andy Dufresne would surely approve.
Nicole de Boer in a still from Cube (1997).
3. Cube (1997)
Before escape rooms became big business, Vincenzo Natali’s Kafkaesque Canadian sci-fi movie made a virtue of its claustrophobic confines.
Six strangers wake up in a futuristic jail without any idea of how or why they came to be incarcerated. But as one poor soul discovers in the opening scene, some of the interconnected rooms feature booby traps, so each move towards freedom is, potentially, a move towards death.
To differentiate between the characters, Natali and co-scriptwriters André Bijelic and Graeme Manson gave each unique skill sets (maths whizz, doctor, policeman), clashing ideals and names that correspond to different real-life prisons (Holloway, Quentin, Rennes).
Incredibly, the film was shot on a single set, with just the wall colours changed to signal each new room. This kind of low-budget ingenuity makes the cube feel both endless and identikit, but it didn’t come easy.
“It’s ironic because you think that making a movie in one room with six people would be relatively simple,” Natali told efilmcritic.com. “But it really was like a Chinese puzzle.”4. Battle Royale (2000)
Banned in several countries, Kinji Fukasaku’s savage satire, based on a 1999 novel by Koushon Takami, is an ultra-violent Lord of the Flies update.
As part of the Japanese government’s Battle Royale Act to eliminate delinquency, each year a class of high school students are forced to fight to the death on a remote island. Equipped with everything from crossbows to coat hangers, and wearing explosive collars in case they refuse to cooperate, the kids are stranded for three days until one emerges victorious – only things don’t quite go to plan.
Amid the gunfire and groin stabbings, there are serious points being made about a generation lost to neglect and disillusionment. Meanwhile, the film’s influence persists in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series, video game Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, and among fans of Asian extreme such as Quentin Tarantino.
With customary concision he told Indie Wire, “If there is any movie that has been made since I’ve been making movies that I wish I had made, it’s that one.”
From left: Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans, Luke Pasqualino, Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung in a still from Snowpiercer (2013).5. Snowpiercer (2013)Set aboard a train after global warming has forced the earth into another ice age, Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s international breakthrough movie concerns a very different kind of escape bid.
Forced to travel round and round the planet on the same track, the last remnants of humanity inhabit the Snowpiercer train according to class, with the elite (including Ed Harris and Tilda Swinton) at the front, and the poor (including Chris Evans and Jamie Bell) crammed together at the back.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette, shot in the Czech Republic, and including South Korean stars such as Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, this is a truly international effort.
In it, we see Curtis (Evans) and friends revolt against the hierarchy and force their way to the front of the train and – just possibly – freedom. The result straddles genres, from straight science-fiction to the eccentric futurism of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. There’s even a character named Gilliam, and another called Edgar after Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright.