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"I ain't spending my life here, I ain't living alone
Ain't breaking no rocks on the chain gang, I'm going down and heading home
Gonna make a jailbreak."
I'm innocent — innocent I tells ya! They think they can keep me in this tin can forever? With all these plastic meal trays and soap that's just begging to be whittled into a gun
? And this gang of jailbirds
with nothing to lose? Give me enough time, and I'm outta here
. And the D.A.'s given me all the time in the world...
This is a trope about prison breaks, which may or may not be from The Alcatraz
The average prison break plot usually breaks down into a common series of elements, which have to happen more or less sequentially or the audience will call shenanigans
. The details are often conflated, depending on the time available to tell the story; but rarely are they skipped altogether.
The Big Idea:
Prison movie protagonists are almost always the new guy, who on his first day does something to gain a lifer's trust. The lifer will then hip the fresh meat to the escape plan and introduce the conspirators. Nearly always, the plan is fortuitously just days away from fruition, which is a writer's trick for confining the action to a short stretch of time. In this case, the scene may be a complete flashback of all the painstaking steps taken up to this point.
Inevitably, someone will say "You must be crazy! They'll shoot you down like a rabid dog if you try to climb those walls!" Sure it's crazy. Crazy Enough to Work
Oh no, the snitch! Every prison has a snitch
, a weaselly character who gives information to the guards in exchange for cigarettes. At a critical conspiratorial moment, he'll overhear the wrong conversation and our heroes have to decide how far they'll go to shut him up. This is almost always a choice between murder and making him an accomplice. In the latter case, you can bet the snitch will pansy out at the last second. Alternatively, they might discover they have a snitch within the escape party
, in which case the newest recruit will always be suspect number one, but will rarely
turn out to be the snitch
The Night Before:
Let's go over the plan, one last time. Every conspirator plays a part
, and they'd better have it down cold. Depending on how complicated this plan is, we may cut away while the conversation is superimposed on a visual demonstration of what's supposed to happen. Not that it matters because...
The Great Escape never goes as planned
. Close calls abound, someone chickens out or dies, and the way out, inevitably if improbably, runs right through the big nasty antagonist.
There are different flavors of escape, of course. There's the classic tunneling-under-the-wall-with-spoons, the hiding-in-the-laundry-cart, the diversionary Prison Riot
, and of course Dressing as the Enemy
and the Air-Vent Passageway
escape. Any permutation of these will always involve a Sleeping Dummy
, and almost
crude weapons from prison issue goodies because it's a No-Gear Level
. Bonus points if the plan hinges on bribing a guard
with some nigh-impossible favor. The protagonists may be there because They All Met in a Cell
. Not to be confused with The Great Repair
, which is about repairing a damaged vehicle to escape a Closed Circle
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Anime and Manga
- An unusual case happens in One Piece: Monkey D. Luffy breaks into maximum-security prison Impel Down to get his brother Ace out. None of the above happens, not even the plan: Luffy makes everything up as he goes, and the entire spectacle takes place over a few hours at most. His Leeroy Jenkins approach catches the attention of the entire prison staff—Luffy only gets as far as he does because everyone else is surprised and aren't prepared to deal with someone breaking in from outside and willingly heading deeper in (as Ace is in the deepest area). Luffy happens to meet up with a group already orchestrating a prison break, however. They DO have a plan, and they use Luffy as an impetus to put it into action.
- Several times in Kangoku Gakuen.
- Batman: Blackgate was a one-shot about Cluemaster orchestrating a Great Escape from Blackgate Penitentary.
- Issue #1 of Red Hood and the Outlaws starts with Arsenal being busted out of a Qurac prison by the Red Hood and Starfire.
- Named after the movie The Great Escape. The "wartime escape story" is practically its own sub-genre.
- The Shawshank Redemption, which gives a Shout-Out to The Count of Monte Cristo.
- Stir Crazy (1980) is a parody of the prison movie in general, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Just because. Includes an escape. Also, a rodeo. But not in that order.
- Dr. Evil's escape from normal prison in the third Austin Powers movie involved starting a riot to cover the escape. He was able to manipulate the prison's populace after demonstrating how, you know, evil he is.
- Chicken Run: The Great Escape but with chickens.
- The Last Castle features a general gathering an army of military convicts to break free from a military jail.
- They just want to take over the prison. They never plan to actually escape. The general knows that any success will be only temporary and simply wants the army to stop ignoring the abuses by the warden.
- Averted in Down By Law (1986) staring Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni. It's about their imprisonment and eventual escape, but doesn't focus on how they get out.
- Escape from Alcatraz (1979) asks what if the famous Alcatraz prison break starred Clint Eastwood? One of the few "non-fiction" Great Escape movies out there, and all the weirder that the actual event utilized so many of the classic jailbreak story idioms.
- Passage To Marseille (1944) tells a ridiculously trope-laden story where Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart are somehow French prisoners escaping Devil's Island by raft. Once successful, they find out their motherland has surrendered and hijack a boat to England. So they can learn to fly planes and run bombing raids over occupied France. In your face, history!
- Each Dawn I Die (1939) stars Jimmy Cagney as a journalist framed for murder. Contains every sub-element of this trope, yet ends rather realistically with a riot-plus-hostage-situation that goes south. Don't worry, everything else that happens is gloriously ridiculous.
- Escape to Athena (1979). Though mainly an action movie, especially the second half which takes place in a secret Nazi V2 missile base.
- Von Ryan's Express. Prisoners of war take over a train and, posing as Germans, try to make their way to Switzerland.
- Like The Great Escape, Escape from Sobibor includes a grand scheme to free hundreds of prisoners. Also slimilar to The Great Escape, the film is based on actual events that occurred in World War II.
- The entire plot of Papillon revolves around the titular character's numerous attempts to escape (with varying degrees of success).
- In Life Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play convicted felons who eventually succeed in escaping.
- Much of Toy Story 3 involved this, where Andy's toys had to get through and escape the daycare center being ruled by the iron fist of Lotso and his system of informants including the Cymbal-Banging Monkey.
- Sucker Punch is a bizarre take on the Great Escape. A young woman plans to escape from a mental institution before she suffers a lobotomy, with the elements of the escape plan being depicted as elaborate fantasy sequences.
- The Big House (1930) which won the first Academy award for Sound, as well as one for its script.
- The Next Three Days is about a man trying to break his wife out of prison for a crime that he feels she did not commit.
- Gustave and his cellmates pull one off in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
- The Colditz Story is another WWII example.
- The Count of Monte Cristo has Dantes escaping from the Chateau d'If before setting out on one hell of a quest for revenge.
- Papillon plays this straight, averts it and subverts it. He escaped several times. One is an incredible good plan, another time the plan failed, and he finally does it by throwing himself to the sea with a barrel, his least elaborated plan.
- In Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn novel Malleus, when Eisenhorn is imprisoned and about to be transfered to trial, his jailor will question him in a manner he would not survive. His friend urges him to eat his dinner, he does and falls vilely ill, and when he is being transferred for treatment, his friends rescue him. Earlier, an enemy had given Eisenhorn half of a poison; his friends had added the other hand to the meal.
- Honor Harrington is responsible for one of the grandest examples on record; she managed to take over a whole prison planet and made it back to friendly space with half a million freed inmates and a fleet of her ownnote .
- In the Sten novel Revenge Of The Damned, the first half is this trope: Sten assembles a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, finds that the religious dude who turned out to be a kick-ass miner dug a great tunnel with the help of his converts, and takes them to freedom. Well, it turned crazy- two of the escapees ended up dead, two bought and ran a casino (very well, actually) and the religious dude ends up converting an entire enemy village.
- In "The Borders of Infinity", Miles Vorkosigan is sent in to rescue one single man from a Cetagandan concentration camp. Finding that his intended rescuee is catatonic and dying, he opts to organize the escape of all 10,000 POWs. In-universe, it's the third biggest mass breakout in recorded history. And he sets the whole thing in motion while bare-ass naked, having been robbed of his clothes within moments of arriving at the camp. Miles Vorkosigan: a man to whom "Tries Too Hard" has no meaning.
- Years later, the Marilacans make a holovid drama about it called The Greatest Escape, and try to hire Admiral Naismith (Vorkosigan's Secret Identity) as a technical consultant.
- "Battle Without Banners" is this trope in a prison controlled by a future American government which has apparently been taken over by some form of fascism. None of them make it.
- Gordon R. Dickson's "Danger, Human! High Explosive" is about bear-like aliens testing an ancient prophecy (which said that if they try to interfere with the prophecy they'll end up speeding it) about humans and their supposed dangerous unknown ability, so they abduct a human, make him near immortal and enclose him in a Tailor-Made Prison to test the prophecy.
- In the short story "Good Friends and Good Family" (scroll down) by Desmond Warzel, Sparks manages a prison break with a little outside help. Say hello to his little friend...
- In Robert E. Howard's "Rogues in the House" this is arranged for Conan the Barbarian on the condition he assassinate someone after.
- Harry Potter: Sirius Black, the first wizard known to successfully escape Azkaban right under the Dementors' noses (or lack thereof). Barty Crouch Jr also managed it, several years earlier, but his escape wasn't discovered until later. In the later books, a few other Death Eaters accomplish this. However, they basically cheated since the Dementors switched sides and thus Azkaban became rather unreliable.
- In almost all the chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea the Great Escape is discussed. Aronnax, Counseil and Ned Land areprisoners in the Nautilus. To regain their freedom, they must attempt a succesful Great Escape because there will not be a second chance.
- In Myth-ing Persons, Aahz is framed for murder and imprisoned in a gargoyle head made of living stone. Skeeve gets him to tell stories so boring that the head yawns.
- The first third of the Parker novel Breakout is dedicated to Parker organising a Great Escape from Stonveldt prison.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, a plot to Save the Princess plays out as one of these. Mance Rayder and six spearwives, disguised as a bard/pimp and his whores, recruit Theon to help smuggle the girl they think is Arya Stark out of a besieged and locked-down Winterfell. They come up with a plot, trick their way past several sets of guards, it goes wrong, several conspirators die and Our Hero leaps over the wall with The Girl in his arms... and that's where the book leaves it.
Live Action TV
- Breaking his brother out of Fox River is Michael Scofield's overall goal in the first season of Prison Break.
- Season 3 features another Great Escape in "Sona"-prison.
- Parodied something rotten in Ripping Yarns: "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B."
- MacGyver compresses the entire trope into a single episode in "The Escape".
- A Great Escape (Neal desperately wanting to find his missing girlfriend) kicks off White Collar.
- In an episode of Young Indiana Jones, Indy is in a German prison fortress for Allied POWs during World War I and attempts to escape with a fellow prisoner, a young Charles De Gaulle.
- In the first episode of the third season of Leverage, it opens with the team busting Nate from a courthouse. It soon cuts to Nate, behind bars, pointing out to Sophie that it would never work, and he points out the numerous flaws in it. He then breaks out of prison anyway, and pins the corrupt warden as his accomplice in one episode, just because he can. It also helps that the warden was locking up innocents for crimes using corrupt judges, which just irritated Nate.
- Dean and Sam Winchester get themselves into a prison so they can deal with the ghost that's killing guards and inmates. None of their escape plans get given away until the end of the episode, but it turns out their contact, Deacon, is in fact one of the prison guards, which is helpful.
- Subverted in The X-Files; Mulder's escape from prison is a spur-of-the-moment decision on the part of his friends to escape execution and comprises only about five minutes of the two-hour series finale. It does feature a nice Heel-Face Turn from former FBI archnemesis ADA Kersh.
- Lampshaded in "F Emasculata." Scully reads a briefing that says two prisoners escaped by hiding in a laundry cart, and Mulder says rather dryly that he doesn't think the guards have been watching enough prison movies.
- Parodied in a sketch from the finnish sketch comedy show, Ketonen Ja Myllyrinne. Two prisoners outline their escape plan, which includes things such as flying a helicopter over the Gulf of Finland to Mexico and killing guards with a fork. Also, the guy who they're enlisting to pilot the helicopter has two days to learn to fly a helicopter from a book.
- Michael Bentine's Potty Time: "The Great Potty Escape" was a parody of Colditz. The POWs end up digging so many tunnels that the entire castle collapses.
- Every episode of Breakout Kings begins with a prisoner or prisoners staging a Great Escape (usually highly spectacular).
- "Brig Break" is about a jailbreak and with Meg in a Hostage Situation.
- in "Scimitar", Harm and Meg gets the captured marine out of an Iraqi prison.
- In "The Black Jet", Harm and Mac gets Keeter out of an Iranian prison.
- In My Name Is Earl, Earl goes to prison for a crime his ex-wife committed, and finds that his cellmate happens to be his good friend Ralph. The next morning, Earl finds that Ralph has escaped, by creating a tunnel through the wall behind a Dolly Parton poster, and placing a watermelon-dummy in his bunk. (He was going to make one for Earl, but ate it.) Earl then gets moved to the general population barracks instead of a regular cell.
- The trope comes up again (with help from Randy, Joy, and Darnell) after finding out that the warden rescinded on his promise to give Earl his early release. It results in a hostage situation... and the revelation that the warden is Darnell's old roommate...and since he's also a former porn star, he gives Earl what was promised to keep that detail from being leaked to the public and jeopardizing his career, his wife's career, and their marriage.
- MythBusters has tested some rather bizarre fictional methods of breaking out of jail, including...
- Breaking down the bars with salsa until they can be pulled out.
- Firing your ball and chain in a cannon so you fly over the wall.
- Blowing up the door with antacids.
- Tying a rope around the bars and having a horse pull them out.
- Building a raft out of raincoats to escape Alcatraz.
- Making a rope out of toilet paper, hair or bedsheets and climbing out.
- Using floss to wear away the bars.
- One of the "Supergame" modes in Judge Dredd requires stopping one of these.
- In Lucky Dog 1 Gian is very experienced in breaking in and out of prisons. He's broken out of the prison he's in at the start of the game four times. His first job is to break him and the four mafia captains/love interests out of prison. He picks all of their respective locks open, takes them to the morgue, they pretend to be corpses so they're loaded into the car, driven out and then they jump out once they get to the gate. The plan doesn't go off without a hitch as the people who were supposed to pick them up outside fail to arrive (due to a mole trying to keep the cast in prison) so the team hijack the warden's new car — which just happened to drive past.
- It is also possible to fail escaping altogether. In Guilio's route, if you decide to put the escape off for another day he'll be transferred to another prison and everybody else is either transferred away or killed, meaning The Mafia is completely destroyed and it's game over. In Ivan's route, if you decide to go through an old tunnel dug by another prisoner it'll collapse and everybody is crushed to death.
- The Chronicles Of Taras is a play on the old prison-escape movies (such as The Great Escape, Stalag 17 and Escape from Alcatraz), with a death camp in the middle of nowhere and a cast of teenage girls (alongside horrific creatures in place of guards).
- The Monarch's escape plan in The Venture Bros. involved the cooperation of several fellow imprisoned villains... who all looked the other way when he made his move due to interference by the Guild of Calamitous Intent. He got out with help from King Gorilla. Also, he was innocent.
- "The Boiling Rock" episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender had basically all of the common elements, plus kung fu, wall crawling and fireballs. The gargantuan Chit Sang forced his way into the plan, causing the first attempt to fail. The group that eventually got out stayed together.
- This is the plot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode "The Big House", where the turtles plan to escape from a Triceraton prison.
- This trope makes up the plot of the The Super Mario Bros. Super Show episode "Escape from Koopatraz".
- Jimmy Two-Shoes, the episode "Jimmy in the Big House".
- In the Futurama movie Into the Wild Green Yonder, the Feministas plan one of these (with Bender's help).
- The Simpsons fourth-season episode "A Streetcar Named Marge" had a sub-plot parodying The Great Escape with Maggie placed in daycare while Marge rehearsed for a play. Instead of actually escaping, the plot was to liberate all of the confiscated pacifiers.
- Young Justice: Icicle, Sr. attempts to stage a mass breakout from Belle Reve in "Terrors".
- The Dexter's Laboratory episode "Dexter's Detention". Dexter manages to escape detention... only to wind up in the state prison.
- Generator Rex: Valve, Gatlocke, Hunter Cain and No-Face bust out of what is supposed to be The Alcatraz at the start of "Enemies Mine".