Long before Tim Robbins (as Andy Dufresne) endured the injustice and indignity of Shawshank Prison and turned the tides on his duplicitous, righteous jailers, Clint Eastwood engineered his own real life Escape from Alcatraz in the 1979 prison break film.
Based on the true story of career criminal Frank Morris and his 1962 escape from Alcatraz, the action generally plods along in comparison to the 1994 Oscar nominee for Best Picture that famously co-starred Morgan Freeman. It also doesn't contain the all encompassing struggle to survive in the face of criminally violent guards, roving jailhouse rapists and an incarceration that systematically hinged on dehumanization.
But it does have the iconic American actor at the helm of the prison break cast. Pitted against Warden Johnston, played by Patrick McGoohan, Clint Eastwood and his fellow inmates weather a more methodically psychological megalomania from their chief overseer and the system in general.
Drama Escalates Subtly in Every Eastwood Scowl
Regardless, the film does manage to keep pace by the sheer and full range of Eastwood's signature expressions of contempt. Then piggybacking on the petty and arbitrary acts of control against his prison compatriots, Clint matches the scowls with determined resolve.
Unlike Dirty Harry or a high plains drifter, Clint doesn't push it and makes sure all his protestations directed at the warden and prison guards are well thought out and measured. For example, after the prison sage and resident artist cuts his own fingers off after permanent loss of painting privileges, Clint keeps his head, while leaving the guards no room to retaliate. “Put that in your report," he instructs the negligent guard after gathering up the severed fingers.
In direction from Don Siegel, Clint also carefully cultivates his friends in only the frank and fearless Clint Eastwood way. Seeking alliance with the leader among the black inmates, Eastwood defers at first to sit among “English” and his judgmental brethren. That is until the desired opening comes. "You're either too afraid to sit or you just hate niggers," he taunts Clint.
With the perfect dose of reluctance, Clint reengages on the down low. “I guess I just hate niggers,” he deadpans without reservation.
The key alliance solidified, Clint again shows he can carry it just as easily with a quip as with a gun.
Nonetheless, the four escapees slowly and smartly accumulate the tools they need to tunnel, traverse and float their way off Alcatraz Island. Faced with one final injustice perpetrated by the warden, Eastwood pulls up and doesn't take the bait. Instead, realizing it's now or never, he prepares to leave a calling card to signify the victory to come over the unrepentant Warden.
Clint Leaves Warden Holding the Bag
Not quite as in your face as the warden's fate in Shawshank Redemption but just as powerful. The outcome in the real life prison break is also much less definitive.
No trace was ever found of the escapees - except the man made rafts of raincoats found on nearby Angel Island and some personal effects. Authorities at the time believed the prisoners would have drowned before leaving them behind, because these were all the belongings they had.
“Or that's just what they want you to think," one of the law enforcement officers on film taunts Warden Johnston. Seemingly not giving the agent his due, the warden resigns himself to the film's truth in the conveniently placed artifact that only Clint could have left behind.
Regardless of how the fiction intersects with the historical facts and final fate of Frank Morris, which we may never know, Clint Eastwood once again comes out on top. You know, just the way we like it and only the way he could.