Some of the greatest stories ever told start behind bars. Whether it’s because they champion hope, remind us of the power of human perseverance, or affirm that injustice must be righted, our fascination with those inside the prison system, and their attempts to escape it, endures.
No one knows that better than actor and director Morgan Freeman; his portrayal of one such story wound up becoming a defining moment in his own career. The Shawshank Redemption retains its place as arguably the most well-known prison break tale in cinema history, continuing to resonate with audiences around the world, and holding the title of one of the greatest films of all time. There was something about it that captured, and continues to capture, the collective imagination. The story went far behind the crimes of the individuals within it, instead tapping in to a common and relatable sense of humanity that connected to the intrinsic need to believe in oneself even in the face of impossible odds.
Now, Freeman turns his attention to the real-life convicts whose stories rival any work of fiction in Great Escapes With Morgan Freeman. For the men and women who are the focus of this documentary series, it’s not what they did to land themselves in prison that makes them famous, it’s what they did to get out. The intricacy of their breakout plots, the alliances formed to make them possible, and their ingenuity and creativity in the midst of environments that are as bleak and isolating as they come, are impressive to say the least. Their plans may fail, costing them precious time or even their lives in the process, but isn’t the chance of success, however small, worth the risk?
Beginning inside the walls of Alcatraz Prison, an impenetrable fortress perched on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Freeman introduces audiences to Allen West, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, setting the scene for their June 1962 escape attempt from inside one of the cells of the maximum-security facility. These four unassuming men were doing time inside America’s toughest prison for relatively petty crimes in comparison to some of their fellow inmates, but they were by no means innocent. West was a serial car thief, Morris had drug charges and a string of break and enters under his belt, and the Anglin brothers were facing thirty-five years a piece behind bars for a bank heist. Despite their differences, the men were united by a common goal: to get out of Alcatraz, whatever it took.
As Freeman narrates their elaborate plan from beginning to end in his incomparable way, he brings every moment of tension, uncertainty and hope to life, making it impossible to not become invested in the success of these men. He in no way justifies the crimes that brought them here, far from it, but as they meet each unbelievable obstacle and manage to skirt their way around it through a combination of manipulation, quick thinking and sheer dumb luck, there’s no denying that a life of crime makes for a unique skillset that now becomes their greatest asset. But will it be enough to see them cross the treacherous waters of the bay and reach the promise of a new life and new identity on the mainland?
It’s a skillset shared by Richard ‘Hacksaw’ Matt and his accomplice David Sweat more than forty years later behind the sixty-foot-high walls of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York State. Freeman acknowledges that these are two undeniably evil men, both convicted murderers with little remorse for their crimes, but it is the unlikely nature of their escape plan that sees us still almost wanting them to succeed no matter how chronically unlikable they may be. The men believe they can go one better than Andy Dufresne’s tunnelling out of Shawshank Prison; they’ve got the advantage of team work on their side. But does friendship really exist behind bars? And even if it does, would someone really give up their own chance at freedom to ensure the other also makes it out?
From El Chapo’s multiple prison breaks, to the escape of six men under the giant wall of the Pittsburgh State Penitentiary, and the mass exodus of forty prisoners from Belfast’s Maze; with each episode, Freeman discovers just what it is about these stories that captured the attention of the public and authorities alike. These prisoners are proof of the motivation that comes from the reality of facing a lifetime locked up with no prospect of release. When you have nothing left to lose, taking risks, even when the likelihood is they will never pay off, is part and parcel of their resisting the finality of life inside.
Through interviews with their cell mates, family members and guards, and the use of software technology to recreate with great verisimilitude the prisons themselves, Freeman’s eight-part series reminds us that, for some, incarceration is simply another code to crack.
Great Escapes With Morgan Freeman premieres on SBS at 7:35pm, Saturday 8 January. See episodes after they air at SBS On Demand: