US Release Date: 10-14-1994
Directed by: Frank Darabont
- Tim Robbins, as
- Andy Dufresne
- Morgan Freeman, as
- Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding
- Bob Gunton, as
- Warden Norton
- William Sadler, as
- Clancy Brown, as
- Captain Hadley
- Gil Bellows, as
- Mark Rolston, as
- Bogs Diamond
- James Whitmore, as
- Brooks Hatlen
- Larry Brandenburg, as
- Neil Giuntoli, as
- Brian Libby, as
- David Proval, as
- Joseph Ragno as
Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.
The Shawshank Redemption was based on the Stephen King short story titled "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption". This is the ultimate prison yarn that includes nearly every cliché from every prison drama ever made. It stars Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as two men serving time in the titular prison that form an unlikely, and enduring, friendship. In the tradition of many classic movies, Freeman acts as narrator, introducing the different characters and marking the passage of time with that distinctive and oh so familiar voice of his.
The story begins in 1947 with Andy Dufresne (Robbins) sitting in his car late one night. He's been drinking and he loads a .38 caliber revolver. Clearly Andy has murder on his mind. Next we cut to a courtroom scene where Andy is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover in cold blood. Andy is sentenced to life behind bars to be served at Shawshank Prison in New England.
We next meet a group of seasoned convicts. Whenever new guys arrive, they take bets on which one will be the first to cry out. Red (Freeman) picks Andy because he looks timid and stuck up. His first impression turns out to be false. As he says in voice-over, “His first night in the joint, Andy Dufresne cost me two packs of cigarettes. He never made a sound.”
Red is the guy you go to to get things from the outside world. One day while watching the movie Gilda, Andy asks him if he can get Rita Hayworth. Red does, and Andy puts up a poster of the actress in her most famous photograph, on his cell wall. As the years and decades pass, the poster on Andy's wall changes. First to Marilyn Monroe getting her skirt blown in The Seven Year Itch and finally to Raquel Welch in that fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. What no one realizes is that Andy is using his pinup girls to conceal a secret.
Shawshank Redemption has all the familiar prison stereotypes. The sadistic guard and sanctimonious, hypocritical warden are here. There is the required gang of terrorizing rapist inmates as represented by a group known as the Sisters. There is the not very bright inmate with a speech impediment and even the grandfatherly old man that works in the prison library and who's been at Shawshank since 1905. And of course Andy is a Christ like figure, similar in many ways to the titular role played by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.
The old man's name is Brooks and he's featured in a very touching subplot. James Whitmore perfectly captures Brooks' reluctance to be paroled after 50 years behind bars. His confusion and inability to adapt to a radically different world than the one he left behind all those years ago, is heartbreaking. He says, “I saw an automobile once when I was a kid but now they're everywhere. The whole world's gone and got itself in a big damn hurry.”
But the heart of the story is the relationship between Andy and Red. At one point Red says, “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” Later, in a letter, Andy turns Red's words around when he writes, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” There is also an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Red refers to Andy's daydreams as being nothing but a “shitty pipe dream”. Well, to achieve his dreams Andy must put those words to a literal (and very disgusting) use.
This movie runs well over two hours but you will be so engrossed in the story and so deeply invested in these characters that you won't stop to think about its length. If anything you may want to spend more time with Red and Andy. The final shot is a pleasant tease. The Shawshank Redemption wasn't a big hit in its initial theatrical run. Thankfully it was rediscovered and became a huge hit on home video and has gone on to true classic status. It surely ranks as one of the best movies of the 1990s and (with the possible exception of Stand By Me) is the best movie adaptation of a Stephen King story.
Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption
Within the realm of classic "guy" films, most are action movies or comedies. A few exceptions are dramas. These include such movies as The Godfather, Field of Dreams and The Shawshank Redemption. Even my, captain of the high school foot ball team, deer hunting brother-in-law counts this as one of his all time favorite films.
One reason this prison film may speak to guys, there are no women in the film, is that it is about so much more than prison. Patrick mentioned the character of Brooks Hatlen. He has become more comfortable in prison than the real world. Red explains how that can happen, "These walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them, until it gets to you depend on them. That's institutionalized."
As Red is the go to guy in prison, he himself has become institutionalized, as in prison he is an important person. When he gets out and works at the grocery store, he asks the manager's permission to go to the bathroom. "Forty years I been asking permission to piss. I can't squeeze a drop without say-so." Red narrates.
Andy is different. He does not forget what a real life is. He locks himself in the office and plays classical music over the intercom for the whole prison population to hear. In a place of such ugliness, he accepts getting into trouble to present something of beauty. Andy tells Red, "That's the beauty of music. They can't get that from you... Haven't you ever felt that way about music?" Red does not understand, but Andy explains, "You need it so you don't forget... that... there are places in this world that aren't made out of stone. That there's something inside... that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours." Red asks, "What're you talking about?" Andy simply replies, "Hope."
In fact, that is the theme of The Shawshank Redemption. Andy spends two decades clinging to the hope that one day he will be a free man. He never becomes complacent to his life in prison. Whether standing up to the abusive guards or the Sisters, Andy stays true to himself. Andy refuses to become institutionalized. He clings to his humanity by clinging to hope. I did not see him as quite the Christ figure as Patrick did, but he does bring something to the other prisoners. Through the music and the beer he gets them, he reminds them of a life many are starting to forget.
The greatness of The Shawshank Redemption is that it reflects onto so many of our real lives. How many of us have merely settled for what we have? How many of us have stopped dreaming of a better life. How many of us are content with the prison of our life? How many of us are already institutionalized, and may not even know it. What man, at one time or another, has not needed or been motivated by some hope that maybe life still holds something better for him?
Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption.
Despite this movie's popularity, its seven Oscar nominations, good word of mouth and the fact that cable channel TNT has shown it approximately once every two months for the past 15 years, I had somehow never watched The Shawshank Redemption until now. By waiting I may have appreciated it more than if I had seen it in 1994. Not that a young man can't enjoy this movie, but having some life experience definitely adds to your appreciation of the themes that Eric so eloquently summed up in his final paragraph.
As Patrick wrote, the story is filled with prison cliches. Just reading a description of the events of the plot won't reveal much to show what makes this movie great. There have been countless prison movies filled with the tropes that Patrick mentions. The one difference in the events of the plot is the raping of Andy. As Red puts it, "I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that - but prison is no fairy-tale world. He never said who did it, but we all knew." In most prison films, Andy would have fought the good fight, had a narrow escape of some kind, but not here.
Even the characters aren't particularly original. The wise old black man mentoring the young white guy is a cliche unto itself and Andy is reminiscent to some degree of Cool Hand Luke and Randall McMurphy, although not quite as blatantly messianic.
It is the theme of hope, the quotable dialogue and the terrific performances by the cast that release this movie from its prison walls.
Supposedly Rob Reiner wanted to direct a version of the story with Tom Cruise as Andy and Harrison Ford as Red. They're both fine enough actors, but in 1994 they were both megastars and would have brought the weight of that with them. When you watch a Tom Cruise movie, are you ever not aware that it's Tom Cruise? Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman keep the movie small and heartfelt. It's easy to believe the two are friends. Freeman was nominated for an Oscar for his part, although he would lose to Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump.
Both Patrick and Eric mentioned the importance of hope in the story and I completely agree with what they wrote. Without hope, what is life? An idea summed up nicely in perhaps the film's most famous line, "Get busy living, or get busy dying."
Hope is a powerful word and so is this movie. It was worth waiting almost 20 years to finally see it.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (1994)