The 1979 film, Escape from Alcatraz, opens with Clint Eastwood and a group of policeman taking a barge across San Francisco Bay, heading towards Alcatraz Island. As any fan of Eastwood’s 1970s film work can tell attest, this is hardly the first time that Eastwood has gone across the bay to Alcatraz. In The Enforcer, Eastwood went to Alcatraz to kill a bunch of hippies and save the Mayor of San Francisco. It wasn’t easy but, fortunately, Clint found a rocket launcher.
However, in Escape from Alcatraz, it’s hard not to notice that Clint is wearing handcuffs. And the cops beat him up while traveling to the island. And once they reach the prison …. oh my God, they’re making Clint Eastwood walk down a prison hallway naked and shoving him into a cell! Is this some early form of 60 Days In or could it be that Clint Eastwood is playing a convict? After starting the 70s in the role of Dirty Harry Callahan, Clint Eastwood ended the 70s playing one of the people who Callahan would have arrested. (Or, if we’re going to be totally honest, shot.)
Specifically, Clint Eastwood is playing Frank Morris. The real-life Morris was a career criminal. He had a genius IQ but he loved to steal and he spent most of his known life in prison. He was specifically sent to Alcatraz because he had a history of escaping from other prisons. Because Alcatraz was sitting on an island in the middle of the difficult-to-cross San Francisco Bay, it had a reputation for being inescapable and, indeed, every previous escape attempt had failed and led to someone getting gunned down by the guards. Morris, of course, immediately started to plot his escape. Working with three other prisoners, Morris managed to tunnel his way out of the prison. (Famously, Morris and his accomplices also managed to create papier-mâché dummy heads, which were left in their beds and kept the guards from realizing that they had escaped from their cells.) No one knows whether Morris and his accomplices managed to cross the bay, though I think most people would prefer to think that they made it to freedom. Our natural tendency is to root for the underdog, even if they are a group of car thieves fleeing from a federal prison.
For the most part, Escape from Alcatraz sticks to the facts of Morris’s escape. Of course, because Frank Morris is played by Clint Eastwood, there’s never really much doubt as to whether or not he’s going to figure out a way to get out of the prison. There’s not a prison in the world that could hold 70s-era Clint Eastwood!
The casting of Eastwood, however, adds another layer to the story because Eastwood, especially at the time that Escape from Alcatraz was made, was the ideal representation of individualism. From the minute the smug warden (played by Patrick McGoohan) tells Morris that it will be impossible to escape from Alcatraz, it becomes obvious why Morris has no other option but to escape. The warden thinks that he can tell the prisoners what to do, when to talk, and what to think. The warden expects his prisoners to live and act like monks who have taken a vow of silence but, instead of offering the hope of salvation, the warden is more concerned with exercising his own power. The warden doesn’t flinch at taking away the rights of the prisoners, even after his actions lead to an otherwise harmless prisoner having a mental breakdown and chopping off his own fingers. As such, Escape from Alctraz is not just another mid-budget, 70s action movie. Instead, it’s the story of the State (represented by McGoohan) vs the Individual (represented by Eastwood). It’s a film that says that yes, Frank Morris may be a criminal but he still has a right to his humanity. Society may want to forget about the prisoners in Alcatraz but Frank Morris has no intention of being forgotten,
Escape from Alcatraz was Eastwood’s final collaboration with the director Don Siegel. Siegel instinctively understood how to best use Eastwood’s laconic presence. Siegel previously directed Eastwood in Dirty Harry, another film that featured a conflict between the State and the Individual. Perhaps even more importantly, Siegel directed the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another film in which one man struggles to maintain his humanity and his sense of self. In many ways, both Alcatraz’s warden and the alien body snatchers are portrayed as having the same goal. They both want to eliminate free will and human emotion. In the end, the viewer doesn’t just want Morris to escape because he’s Clint Eastwood. Instead, the viewer knows that Morris has to escape before he’s robbed of his soul.
(Sadly, Siegel and Eastwood had a bit of a falling out during the direction of Escape from Alcatraz, with Siegel apparently buying the rights to the story before Eastwood could purchase them in order to make sure that Siegel and not Eastwood would be credited as the film’s producer. This led to a rift between the two men, one that was wasn’t healed before Siegel’s death in 1991. However, even after their rift, Eastwood continued to say that everything he knew about directing, he learned from watching Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Unforgiven was dedicated to both of them.)
Escape from Alcatraz is an enjoyable and entertainingly tense action film, one that convinces us that prison is Hell and which also features one of Eastwood’s best performances. (Like many actors, Eastwood seems to have more fun playing a rule-breaking rebel as opposed to an upholder of law and order.) The supporting cast is also great, with McGoohan turning the warden into a truly hissable villain. Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, and Larry Hankin all make good impressions as Morris’s accomplices while Roberts Blossom will break your heart as a prisoner who just wants to be allowed to paint.
Personally, I don’t know if Frank Morris survived his escape attempt but I know that Clint Eastwood definitely did.