Should I Watch..? 'The Shawshank Redemption'
What's the big deal?
The Shawshank Redemption is a period drama film released in 1994 and is based on a short story by Stephen King. Written and directed by Frank Darabont, the film tells the story of an innocent man sentenced to life in prison where he befriends a fellow inmate and becomes instrumental in the money-laundering schemes of the corrupt warden. The film stars Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, Gil Bellows, William Sadler, Clancy Brown and James Whitmore. Despite positive reviews when it was released, the film initially bombed at the box office and was considered a disappointment. However, after securing seven Oscar nominations and due to word-of-mouth, the film become a cult hit and received a second theatrical run - pushing its takings up to $58.3 million. It is still regularly broadcast on TV across the world and is now considered one of the greatest films of the 1990s.
What's it about?
After the murder of his wife and her lover in Portland, Maine in 1947, mild-mannered banker Andy Dufresne is convicted of their murders and sentenced to consecutive life sentences in Shawshank State Penitentiary. Despite pleading his innocence, Andy finds himself befriending fellow inmate and convicted smuggler Ellis "Red" Redding who manages to acquire a rock hammer and a poster of Rita Hayworth for Andy. After working and getting regularly assaulted working in the prison laundry, Andy offers his skills as a banker to captain of the guards Byron Hadley and soon finds himself reassigned to work in the prison library alongside fellow lifer Brooks Hatlen.
After a while, Andy begins helping all the guards with their money and especially that of Warden Norton whose pious cruelty works hard to keep the prisoners morale low at Shawshank. Despite this, Andy never seems to lose the hope that Red lost long ago that justice will prevail. His hopes are briefly raised with the arrival of burglar Tommy Williams in 1965 who apparently holds the key to Andy's freedom. But as the years go by, will Andy hold on to that hope or will the spirit of Shawshank crush his soul?
Ellis "Red" Redding
Warden Samuel Norton
Capt. Byron Hadley
Release Date (UK)
17th February, 1995
Academy Award Nominations
Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing
What's to like?
You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a critic's kinda movie where the learned and elitist wax lyrical but ordinary folks like you and me wonder what the point of it all is. Fear not - there are many reasons why The Shawshank Redemption has remained near the top of IMDb's Top 250 for all this time. It could be the magnetic performances given by Robbins and Freeman as the captivating pair helming the movie. It could be the movie's subtle but noticeable acknowledgement of the passing of time beyond Shawshank's walls in costumes, music and dialogue. It could be the film's atmosphere of oppression vs human spirit, the sort of struggle prison films love to depict ever since Cool Hand Luke in 1967. But I think it's the films ultimate message that hope is not just useful but essential to the human condition.
As great as Freeman and Robbins are, the supporting cast are equally fantastic but none come close to Gunton as Warden Norton, whose initial benevolence quickly gives way to corruption and cruelty. Despite Darabont's insistence that such imagery was furthest from his mind, the film has more than a touch of religion about it - it's easy to see Dufresne as a Christ-like figure opposed by the system who wishes to break him down like the other inmates. So captivating is the story that when it appears that Dufresne's last hope is extinguished, you cry tears of rage at the injustice. And for a viewer like me, it takes a lot to get me to care about characters this much - in fact, only It's A Wonderful Life effected me this much.
- King never cashed the cheque from Darabont for the rights. In fact, he framed the cheque and sent it back to Darabont with a note that said "In case you ever need bail money. Love, Steve."
- The part of Red in the original story was a middle-aged white Irishman and actors like Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford were considered for the role. But Darabont insisted on Freeman for the part, keeping the joke about Red's nickname in the film.
- Although the story the film is based on was called Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption, there isn't a part for the actress as she only appears on Andy's poster. Nevertheless, Darabont was approached by several actresses and agents wanting to be cast as Hayworth.
- Not only is the film King's favourite adaptation of his own works but it's also Freeman's favourite film role of his career.
What's not to like?
There is a definite sense of familiarity to the film which isn't so surprising given how King later admitted that the story was influenced by every prison movie he'd ever seen. The Shawshank Redemption is not an easy film to watch as it doesn't shy away from depicting brutal violence and the nastier aspects of prison life thanks to the utterly evil 'Sisters'. What makes things worse is that because you care so much for Andy and Red, the constant abuse - verbal and physical - makes you angry. You feel like stepping into the picture to stop it but on the flip side, it makes the ending so much more uplifting and restores a little of your faith in humanity.
On a personal note, the movie isn't really suited to my tastes and having seen it already, I don't have the desire to go back and re-watch it. In a weird way, it reminded me of films like The Godfather or Goodfellas (a film which Darabont actively tried to imitate) - films I respect and admire hugely but just aren't for me. Technically, this film is a wonder to watch with moments to inspire as well as deflate and with fantastic performances throughout. I would recommend the film in a heartbeat but given a choice, I'd probably go for something more to my taste.
Should I watch it?
Unquestionably one of the most powerful and uplifting films from the 1990s, it seems strange to think what might have overshadowed such a film at the time. But The Shawshank Redemption is the definition of an unmissable film - simple but effective story-telling with incredible performances and expert film-making are all that required to make a movie irresistible and this film deserves to be recognised for its charm, its immersive drama and the best use of The Marriage Of Figaro in any movie in history.
Great For: uplifting spirits, current or former convicts, adults looking for a proper drama instead of a mindless action film
Not So Great For: prison staff, anyone expecting a horror because of the association with Stephen King
What else should I watch?
It may seem surprising now to consider a film of this stature getting overlooking at the time (it didn't win any of the seven Oscar nominations it was nominating for) but part of the reason for the film's failure at the box office was due to strong competition from the likes of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, two movies which largely dominated the awards season. Quentin Tarantino's crime epic secured the prestigious Palme D'Or at that year's Cannes Film Festival while Tom Hanks' tale of a simpleton's view of American history in the 20th century picked up six awards at the Oscars.
Prison movies usually feature a hero with an indelible spirit taking his fight to 'the man' in form of the invariably mean guards. From classics like Cool Hand Luke and Papillon to Clint Eastwood's daring Escape From Alcatraz and another Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile. But not every prison film follows the same template - The Rock features the blockbusting duo of Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage breaking into Alcatraz in a violent action thriller while Adam Sandler leads a comedic bunch of cons in a football game against the guards in The Longest Yard, a dumb comedy I somehow have a soft spot for.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox