The prison-break movie has gone out of fashion a little in recent years. In looking at the best the sub-genre has to offer, most come from decades past, and it’s hard to understand why. There might be a certain formulaic aspect to watching a team of prisoners plan an escape, execute it, and then succeed or fail in escaping the authorities, but it’s such a fun formula.
These classic prison movies are among the best. These are not the objective best, and they’re also not the best prison movies generally speaking, as there are great prison movies like The Green Milethat aren’t as concerned with the idea of escaping. The following all stand as good picks for anyone who likes their prison movies heavy on escape.
Updated on March 28, 2023, by Jeremy Urquhart:
An enjoyable cinematic depiction of a prison escape never gets old, with classic prison break movies remaining iconic, and more recent prison escape movies still being made. It’s clear the sub-genre of jail break movies isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, with the following titles being some of the best prison escape movies out there.
15 ‘The Great Escape’ (1963)
The Great Escape, in a word, is great. It’s perhaps the quintessential prison escape movie, being a nearly three-hour epic centering on a team of prisoners and their plan to break out of a heavily guarded prisoner of war camp in Germany during WW2.
Steve McQueen might be the most memorable member of the cast, but everyone else is fantastic too. The characters being so likable makes you root for their escape, and almost the entire film is focused on that titular escape, making for a consistently engaging watch. Plus, there’s plenty of suspense and excitement, and it holds up very well after almost 60 years.
Watch on HBO Max
14 ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ (1979)
Maybe one of the most memorable Clint Eastwood films in which the iconic actor/director doesn’t play a cowboy or cop, Escape From Alcatraz was based on a real-life escape attempt from Alcatraz, the famous island prison located in San Francisco Bay.
One of the things that make Escape From Alcatraz stand out is the fact it was filmed in the real-life Alcatraz Prison, as it had shut down in 1963. This gives the film an authenticity that makes the events feel more compelling, even if the film itself doesn’t aim to be a 100% accurate retelling of the real event.
Watch on AMC+
13 ‘Toy Story 3’ (2010)
It feels strange to call a Toy Story movie a prison escape movie, but that is essentially what the main conflict in Toy Story 3 revolves around. Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang all find themselves trapped at a nightmarish daycare they need to find a way out of, even if the toys who effectively run the place want to stop at nothing to keep them inside.
It does a good job of setting up a terrible place where you can understand why the characters would want to escape, and does so without making things too intense or scary for younger viewers. Planning and executing the escape also proves satisfying to watch, with these exciting sequences ultimately building to the film’s famously bittersweet ending.
Watch on Disney+
12 ‘Le Trou’ (1960)
Released among a host of great French crime films that came out in the 1950s and 1960s, Le Trou (or The Hole in English) stands as one of the best. It’s a simple, almost clinical depiction of five men attempting to escape from a French prison in the 1940s, loosely based on real events.
With non-professional actors being used to add to the realism, Le Trou is stunning in how well it holds up, and how compelling it is despite being so straightforward, simple, and ultimately quite bleak. Perhaps not one of the most fun prison escape movies out there, but it’s one of the most artistically executed, and is also one of the best direct, no-nonsense takes on the sub-genre out there.
Watch on The Criterion Channel
11 ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)
Well, it’s maybe the prison movie, isn’t it? The number 1 film on IMDb’s Top 250, and one of the rare films no one seems to dislike, The Shawshank Redemption is a character-focused, moving, and very engaging film about the friendship between one prisoner who’s resigned to prison life, and another who desperately wants to escape.
While The Shawshank Redemption might focus more on surviving prison life than it does on prison escape, that escape element is still an essential part of it (and probably leads to the film’s most iconic moment). And it’s not really possible to provide a list of prison movies without getting a movie as beloved and rewatchable as The Shawshank Redemption in there somehow, in any event.
Watch on HBO Max
10 ‘Escape from Absolom’ (1994)
Escape from Absolom (sometimes known as No Escape) was set in the once-futuristic year of 2022, though that’s now obviously in the past. It starred Ray Liotta in the lead role, and had a cast of recognizable supporting/character actors, and was a science-fiction movie largely taking place on an island where escape seems impossible and prisoners run wild.
It’s more of an action movie than a prison film, with the main conflict being between two tribes of convicts who are at odds throughout the film. As implied by one of its titles, though, escape does end up being something that the movie depicts, making it a slightly messy but still entertaining mix of sci-fi, action, and prison escape genres.
Watch on Tubi
9 ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ (1932)
One of the earliest movies that could qualify as an example of a prison escape film, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is unsurprisingly about a fugitive from a chain gang. Somewhat different from other prison escape movies, here, the main character escapes early, and much of the film follows his life on the run.
For something that’s now nine decades old, the movie has aged like fine wine as it retains a good deal of its power and has a great sense of momentum. Lead actor Paul Muni (maybe best known for being the main character in the original Scarface) is great, too, and the film as a whole doesn’t feel all that dated, all things considered.
8 ‘The Big House’ (1930)
The Big House is the kind of older movie that seems a little quaint by today’s standards, but was influential and important for the development of the prison escape sub-genre. It’s a slightly melodramatic movie about a planned prison escape that’s complicated by the dynamic the potential escapees have with each other.
There are older movies that need to be watched while keeping in mind the historical context they were made within, and The Big House is certainly one of those. Its age and status for the genre it helped inspired does inevitably make it worth watching for those who can’t get enough prison escape movies, but it doesn’t quite have the same amount of suspense or intensity as later prison films might.
7 ‘Chicken Run’ (2000)
One of the rare examples of a prison movie that’s also family-friendly, Chicken Run is a homage/light parody of The Great Escape, in its story about a group of chickens who are desperate to escape the prison-like farm they live in, to avoid being killed and turned into meat.
It’s got the impressive stop-motion animation that Aardman Animations are known for (they were also behind the Wallace & Gromit shorts + movie), and despite being aimed at kids, it does work surprisingly well as a prison break movie. Even being over 20 years old it’s still popular enough for there to be a Chicken Run sequel in the works, which is slated for release on Netflix in 2023.
Watch on Peacock
6 ‘Papillon’ (1973)
Papillon is a lesser-known prison escape movie starring Steve McQueen. And while it’s not quite as great as The Great Escape, it’s still a very good movie that focuses on its characters attempting to escape captivity. Maybe the fact it isn’t at untouchable or iconic as The Great Escape means it was seen as an appropriate candidate for a remake.
Papillon stands out because stars Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are both great together, and it has a unique setting prison-wise, as it takes place in a particularly harsh labor camp in the jungle. It feels a tad long, especially because it doesn’t have a big ensemble cast to occupy its 150-minute runtime, but it’s still a good watch and is perfect for Great Escape fans who want more McQueen prison escape attempts.
5 ‘Escape Plan’ (2013)
One of those rare movies that can get a viewer interested through its casting alone, Escape Plan‘s biggest draw is that it pairs Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger together. They play two prisoners stuck inside a very high-security prison, and find themselves needing to work together if they’re to have a chance of escaping.
That might be all some need to know, because there’s certainly a novelty to seeing these two icons of 1980s/1990s action cinema together, even if the movie was released sometime after their respective heydays. When it comes to the technical side of things and the quality of the writing, Escape Plan has some shortcomings, but it’s still, at worst, perfectly serviceable and somewhat goofy entertainment.
Watch on HBO Max
4 ‘Midnight Express’ (1978)
Midnight Express is a movie that has a good deal going for it, but is quite flawed in some ways, too. It’s an account of the real-life story of Billy Hayes, an American who was made to serve a lengthy sentence in a Turkish prison after being caught smuggling drugs.
Midnight Express takes some serious liberties when adapting the real-life story, and has also proven controversial for its portrayal of many of its Turkish characters. It’s a messy and imperfect film for sure, but it does have some great performances, a few memorably tense sequences, and a fantastic score by electronic musician Giorgio Moroder. As difficult as the movie and some of its artistic choices can be, it is also a difficult one to forget, for better or worse.
3 ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956)
Spoiler alert, but in A Man Escaped, a man escapes. It’s in the title. It’s inevitable. It’s what the whole movie’s about, really.
This is a methodical and admirably simple French prison movie. It’s notable for really honing in on just one character’s escape attempts in the film, as in most prison escape movies, there’s a team that works together to break out. There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation in A Man Escaped, as a result, which makes it even easier to root for this titular man to escape. A stark, slow, but excellent film, A Man Escaped is an absolutely essential prison film.
Watch on The Criterion Channel
2 ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ (2014)
As a filmmaker, Wes Anderson has been slowly getting more ambitious with his movies, and seems increasingly willing to mix a larger number of genres and have casts that are continually growing in size. The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like one of his biggest movies, spanning a good deal of time, featuring many big-name actors, and presenting a variety of entertaining sequences – some funny, some serious, and some a bit of both.
Part of The Grand Budapest Hotel even finds time to turn into a prison break movie, after one character’s falsely imprisoned and befriends some fellow prisoners who help him escape. It’s one of the film’s highlights, with Anderson’s quirky, deadpan style blending surprisingly well with prison escape tropes.
Watch on HBO Max
1 ‘The Defiant Ones’ (1958)
One of the most iconic roles of the late Sydney Poitier, The Defiant Ones also stars Tony Curtis, with both actors playing two escaped prisoners who have to evade the law as a team, given they’re chained together when they make their escape attempt (and remain that way for much of the film).
The Defiant Ones becomes a film perhaps more concerned with investigating racism than just being a straightforward escape movie, but the fact it does so with this kind of narrative makes it distinct. Like a lot of 1950s movies tackling these kinds of themes, it hasn’t aged flawlessly, but was good for its time, and is still worth watching, thanks to its premise and performances.
Watch on Prime Video
NEXT: The Best Escape Movies