The 30 best prison movies

The Green Mile (1999)

The movie: The other Stephen King prison drama also directed by Frank Darabont. A warmer, fuzzier tale that this time switches focus from the prisoners to the guards - in particular Tom Hanks Paul Edgecomb, a man who takes pride in his work and a considerate stance with the inmates.

Set in the muggy summer of 1935, the events surrounding the arrival of John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) into the prison spiral into the realm of the supernatural.

Best cellmate chatter: Bill Dodge - I think this boys cheese has done slid off his cracker.

Midnight Express (1978)

The movie: Another foreign prison drama based on a true story, the tale of Billy Hayes incarceration in a Turkish prison was shrouded by controversy following its release. While the inspiration for Oliver Stones screenplay was lifted from Hayes true account of events, a few embellishments were made to make it more cinematic. One of those changes involved a strong villainous opposition, which meant the negative depiction of Turkish people and the severity of the torture.

That backlash has since died down, and whats left is a grim cautionary tale about the hubris of youth.

Best cellmate chatter: Max (when Billy asks how to escape) - Catch the midnight express.

Le Trou (1959)

The movie: Jacques Beckers prison escape movie - which translates to The Hole - has acquired a solid reputation. And its absolutely deserved, and somewhat astounding that this slow-burner hasnt been remade. The films an engaging tale of four men who collaborate on a scheme to bust out of the slammer. Only problem is, when a fifth cellmate arrives they are placed in a quandary: do they clue him in and risk everything?

Apparently, Beckers dedication to absolute verisimilitude saw him recreate the actual French prison - La Sante - down to the finest detail, even hiring three of the men who were part of the escape as consultants.

Best cellmate chatter: Geo - Don't forget the time. Remember the hourglass.

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)

The movie: This epic Oscar-winning drama is directed by David Lean. A reimagining of the brutal enslavement of Allied prisoners during World War II who were forced to construct the Burma railway. In this fictionalised account, attention is divided between British officer (Alec Guinness) who orders his men to help the Japanese with the bridge, and the cocksure American officer (William Holden) who tries to ruin it all.

Best cellmate chatter: Colonel Saito - "A word to you about escape. There is no barbed wire. No stockade. No watchtower. They are not necessary. We are an island in the jungle. Escape is impossible. You would die."

The Great Escape (1963)

The movie: The Great Escape. Theres a reason why its rolled out year after year as the definitive post-Christmas lunch watch. Its a feelgood prison movie. A trial of good vs. evil that finds the good guys - the Allied forces of World War Two - uniting in the German POW camp Stalag Luft III and plotting their escape. Steve McQueen stars as the Cooler King with a star-studded cast that includes Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett.

Has any other film theme since become so enveloped in contemporary culture?

Best cellmate chatter: Colin - Afraid this tea's pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It's not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

The movie: A mesmerising delve into the class politics of the First World War, Jean Renoirs classic French movie has is pride of place atop many best of lists. Apparently even Orson Welles himself counted it among his cinematic faves. And quite rightly so. Part-comedy, part-drama and all together compelling its not just a haunting mediation on prisoners-of-war, but a solid tribute to the human spirit.

The film follows two French pilots, Captain de Boeldieu and Lieutenant Marchal, who are captured during a routine recon mission. Along with hundreds of other inmates, of varying social classes, they plot to escape - before staging a cobbled-together variety act, of course.

Best cellmate chatter: Captain de Boeldieu - For me it's simple. A golf course is for golf. A tennis court is for tennis. A prison camp is for escaping.

Stalag 17 (1953)

The movie: The lives of a group of POWs captured in a German luftwaffe camp unravel over the course of their extended incarceration. Its not an overly gritty film, but bearing in mind that Billy Wilder directed it theres something to be said for his transition to darker material.

William Holden stars as an American pilot whom everyone suspects is a mole. And his nuanced performance was celebrated upon the films release; he went on to win the best actor Oscar.

Best cellmate chatter: Sefton - If I ever run into any of you bums on a street corner, just let's pretend we've never met before.

Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

The movie: A slow-burning thriller about a mans plot to escape from that isolated prison rock - Alcatraz. Clint Eastwood leads as Frank Morris, a career criminal whos made a habit out of escaping penetetiaries, and so when hes transferred to the island by the Bay his past set of unique skills are put to the test. Based on yet another true story of three men who leapt into the icy waters of San Francisco bay and were never heard from again.

Don Siegel directs and pulls a fantastic performance out of Eastwood, for whats arguably the best prison escape movie to come out of Hollywood in the modern cinematic era.

Best cellmate chatter: English - Sometimes I think that's all this place is. One... long... count. The prisoners count the hours, the bulls count the prisoners and the king bulls count the counts.

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)

The movie: One of the first movies to expose the inner workings of the American penal system stars Paul Muni as a southerner who is wrongly-convicted of theft and tossed into a chain gang. Based on a true story - the man who inspired Munis character actually did cop to his charges, though - the Georgia Prison Commission were unimpressed by the films derogatory depiction of them and sued Warner Bros.

They lost.

Best cellmate chatter:James - "What would I say to a hamburger? Boy. I'd take Mr. Hamburger by the hand and say, "Pal, I haven't seen you for a long, long time.""

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The movie: Potentially the only Stephen King adaptation in existence thats universally-adored. Upon initial release The Shawshank Redemption was deemed a flop due to its less than stellar box office returns. Triumph in the face of adversity being the driving force of the plot and all, the movie itself became a massive video hit and saw Zihuatanejo rise to the top of many bucket lists.

Tim Robbins stars as Andy Dufresne, an aloof banker wrongly incarcerated for the double homicide of his wife and her lover, who finds himself in the slammer serving a lengthy sentence. Certainly no run of the mill prison flick, Shawshank delves into the varying methods people embrace to remain hopeful - even if your current circumstance isnt rosy. Solid performances, a cunning escape plot, and a gleefully hateful performance from Bob Gunton as the prison warden make this a rare prison movie treat; bar a few explicit scenes - most of the family can watch it.

Best cellmate chatter: Andy - Remember Red: Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Gem Seddon

Gem Seddon is GamesRadar+'s west coast Entertainment News Reporter, working to keep all of you updated on all of the latest and greatest movies and shows on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Outside of entertainment journalism, Gem can frequently be found writing about the alternative health and wellness industry, and obsessing over all things Aliens and Terminator on Twitter.