Film / Escape from Alcatraz

"No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz... and no one ever will."
The Warden to Frank Morris

The good guys are the bad guys, and the bad guys are the good guys. This is Hollywood's version of the story of, in case you couldn't tell by the title, the Great Escape from Alcatraz.

Alcatraz... The Titanic of prisons. Invincible. Unbreakable. 100% escape-proof. Fate called their bluff.

How much of the Clint Eastwood film can you trust? Well, Alcatraz really was a harsh prison off the coast of San Francisco. Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin really did cut the vents out of the walls in their cells using spoons and really did trick the guards using the old dummy-head-in-the-bed trick. They really did escape, leaving behind a fourth prisoner (named Alan West, not Charlie Butts), and really did disappear without a trace.

It's no wonder Hollywood had to grab this story- if any writer tried to make something like this up, they would have been told, "Get Real!"

Tropes that apply to the movie include:

  • Air-Vent Passageway: Morris, Charlie, and the Anglin brothers mount an escape by digging out the back of their cells to get into the ventilator shafts and escape Alcatraz prison through the roof.
  • The Alcatraz: The one and only.
  • Based on a True Story: As noted above, the portion of the film dealing with the actual escape is quite accurate.
  • Building of Adventure
  • Crime of Self-Defense: English is a veteran inmate in Alcatraz prison in 1960. He tells Frank Morris his story how he wound up in there. He was harassed by two men, who tried to attack him with knives. English killed them both. The reason why he got two life sentences, back-to-back? The two men were white, and he was black.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Frank Morris. Being played by Clint Eastwood, this is practically a given.
  • Determinator: You'd have to be to pull this off.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Warden orders Doc's painting privileges permanently suspended because he didn't like the prisoner's painting of him.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The film has the warden finding a flower on a nearby island where the gear is found, hinting that Morris and the Anglin brothers might have gotten that far. He crushes the evidence in his hands and insists "They drowned." In Real Life, there hasn't been a sign of any of the escapees in over 45 years. If even one of them survived, he'd kept one of the biggest secrets of all time with him, possibly to the grave...
  • Fingore: Doc protests the revocation of his painting privileges by lopping off three of his fingers with a hatchet. On-Camera.
  • Friendly Enemy: Some of the guards are jerks but some are friendly with the prisoners, especially the one who has to take away Doc's paintings.
  • Great Escape: What did you expect? A romantic-comedy?
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: They're more complacent than anything. And it's not their fault no one did an architectural analysis of the decades-old prison to determine how being in the middle of a seawater bay is rusting out the walls...
  • Hate Sink: Wolf is the only prisoner who is impossible to sympathize, given he tried to kill Frank Morris twice. He is a rapist, after all.
  • Hero Antagonist: The guards in Alcatraz, who are simply trying to contain a prison full of dangerous criminals. The only completely unsympathetic "good" character in the film is the Warden.
  • Jerkass: The Control Freak Warden of Alcatraz. While it is his job is to ensure the prisoners are in their best behavior and learn from what they have done, he goes way overboard to the point where the prisoners are "confined alone." He's even reluctant to fund good conduct programs or counseling, leaving the prisoners to have to deal with their problems themselves, and the results are disastrous. He even has no problem crushing flowers in front of prisoners. In a modern-day context, he would represent everything wrong with prisons today.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight: Morris asks how English wound up in "The Rock":
    English: I was in a bar in Tennessee. Then these two dudes start hassling me. That was their first mistake. They pulled knives. That was their second mistake. They didn't know how to use them. That was the last mistake they ever made.
  • Never Found the Body: Stated in the footnotes of the film. Whether because the men drowned and were swept out to sea or survived and there were no bodies to be found in the first place will probably never be known.
  • N-Word Privileges: Morris has 'em, but only because he and English quickly figure each other out.
    English: "Now I figure there's two reasons why you didn't sit down on my step. Either you're too scared, or you just hate niggers. Now which is it, boy? You too scared?"
    Morris (sitting next to English): "Nah. I just hate niggers."
  • Odd Friendship: Morris and English. A white convict and escape artist and the jaded leader of the black gang in the 1960s Alcatraz prison quickly see eye to eye, becoming unlikely friends.
  • The Old Convict: English
  • Police Brutality:
    • Downplayed for the most part. Most of the guards are just doing their jobs. If violence is shown, it's to stop a fight in the yard or to discourage a con from starting a fight again.
    • Subverted with the warden. He's depicted as a sadist, especially when he revokes the painting privileges of a sweet old prisoner whom he finds out painted an unflattering portrait of him.
  • Prison Rape:
    • Wolf is looking to make Frank his newest punk. He tries to force the issue in the showers, but four or five punches to the balls later, he decides he'd rather just stab Frank in the courtyard. This doesn't go any better for him.
    • Later, English implies that his gang will do this to Wolf.
  • Running Gag: English and Morris call each other "boy," which at first is meant as a derogatory, racist sign of dominance. As they become friends, it becomes more of a joke up to the final time they meet before Morris escapes and they shake hands through the cell's bars. "Goodbye... boy."
  • Scary Black Man: Averted with English. He's one of the toughest cons on the Rock, respected and feared enough that he alone sits atop the top step of the yard with a view of the mainland. But he is quiet, soft-spoken and treats everyone with respect unless they cross him.
  • Sleeping Dummy: Essential part of the escape plan.
  • Shown Their Work: It's considered one of the most accurate Alcatraz movies ever made. One of the few mistakes: the cots used in the prison are World War II-era cots that don't resemble what was actually used in Alcatraz. Another is Eisenhower's photo in the warden's office in 1962. Another is the lighthouse, installed after the prison closed.
  • Tempting Fate: The Warden, telling a genius-level, escape-artist criminal like Morris that "No one has ever escaped Alcatraz... and no one ever will!"
  • The Stoic: Morris rarely shows emotion.
  • Villain Protagonist: Frank Morris, who is a robber and a multiple prison escapee.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The contrast between the unnamed Wardennote  and the rest of his staff is quite obvious. The guards and the Deputy Warden are just people doing their job and don't resort to plain brutality at any point. The Warden on the other hand is a cold, vain bully. He drives an old prisoner to madness by taking his painting privileges away just because he didn't like a painting the man made of him. His mission to ensure that Frank Morris will remain in prison is also portrayed as more of a personal obsession than just fulfilling his duties as head of the prison.
  • Wham Line:
    Morris: I may have found a way out of here.