Real-Life Prison Breaks Portrayed In Film That Put The ‘Shawshank’ Escape To Shame

This year, The Shawshank Redemption celebrates it’s 20th anniversary. At the time of its release, the film barely made a profit, grossing just $28,341,469 from a $25,000,000 budget. But much like Andy Dufresne, the movie refused to give up. After TNT bought the rights and started playing it nonstop, Shawshank crawled through a river of basic-cable sh*t and came out clean on the other side.

Today, The Shawshank Redemption is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time, and it currently occupies the top spot on IMDB’s “Top 250” chart. Whether or not this is due to its powerful message of hope and redemption or some sort of Ted Turner mind-control device is up for debate. But regardless of why people are drawn to the film, one thing is certain: as inspirational as the story may be, it’s just a goddamn fairy tale.

In real life, when low-level bankers go to jail for murder, they don’t start libraries or play opera songs for the prison yard. They don’t single-handedly bring down corrupt wardens. And they sure as sh*t don’t make miraculous escapes. The prisoners who actually do manage to make miraculous escapes are usually hardened criminals or professional soldiers, and even they eventually still end up recaptured or dead.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at these five real prison breaks portrayed in movies that would put the Shawshank escape to shame. Keep in mind, I’m not saying these are better films. All I’m saying is that what these guys actually accomplished is a lot more impressive than crawling through a poop tube.

Henri Charrière’s Escape From French Guiana (Papillon – 1973)

Henri Charrière, the convicted murderer played by Steve McQueen in Papillon, claimed the story based on his prison escape was 75% true. Some researchers believe that number to be closer to 10%. But it’s still higher than zero, which is more than we can say for Shawshank.

In the film, Charrière makes numerous escape attempts involving leper colonies, indigenous tribesmen, and treacherous nuns. Even if much of the story is embellished, no one disputes the fact that Charrière’s final escape to Venezuela involved riding a bag full of coconuts through shark-infested waters. Crawling through a pipe full of feces is horrible, but I’ll take it over sharks any day of the week.

Speaking of sharks…

The Alcatraz Escape (Escape from Alcatraz – 1979)

On the morning of June 12th, 1962, guards at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary discovered that three inmates (Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris) were missing from their cells. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the missing men had spent a year tunneling through the walls of their cells using spoons, and had reached an unused service corridor to make their escape. Sound familiar?

As Andy Dufresne proved, tunneling through a prison wall is difficult but rewarding work. However, if your prison is located on an island, tunneling is only going to get you so far. The Alcatraz escapees had the added task of crossing the frigid, shark-filled waters of the San Francisco Bay using an improvised life raft made out of raincoats and contact cement. We’ve all been told Alcatraz was a horrible place, but the fact that these guys were willing to use a raft made of cement should really drive that point home. I’m sure they would have preferred a sh*t-filled pipe, had it been an option.

At any rate, while the 1979 Clint Eastwood film based on the escape implies the men made it to shore, in reality, the three were never heard from again. While they have no definitive proof, the FBI believes the fugitives most likely drown. Then again, the government has been known to tell a lie or two in the interest of covering its own ass, so who knows?

In December of 2011, an 89-year-old Rome, GA man claimed to be a cousin of one of the escapees, saying he helped bride the guards, and later met up with the men in San Diego after their escape. Then again, rednecks have been known to tell a lie or two in the interest of getting on television, so who knows?

Dieter Dengler’s Escape From Pathet Lao (Rescue Dawn – 2006)

Dieter Dengler was a German-born aviator who flew for the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. In February of 1966, he was shot down during a secret mission in Laos, and was captured.

Being a prisoner of war is usually an unpleasant experience. This is doubly true if you happen to be taken prisoner by a country you’re not technically supposed to be bombing. When your own government won’t even admit that you exist, there isn’t a lot of incentive for your captors to treat you well. Dieter Dengler learned that the hard way, and endured numerous torture sessions at the hands of his guards.

While in Laos, Dengler was imprisoned with two other Americans, Duane W. Martin and Eugene DeBruin, as well as well as three Thais and once Chinese prisoner who had been working for the U.S. While there were many opportunities to flee, the group decided to wait until all of the prisoners were healthy enough to escape together. Because dead guards are less likely to notice an escape attempt, the group also decided to steal a bunch of guns and kill the guards.

Of all the escapees, only Dengler is known to have survived, which is why he is the main character of the film Rescue Dawn instead of some random Chinese guy. He was rescued by American forces after spending 23 days on the run in a sweltering, bug-infested jungle. As the result of his ordeal, he weighed only 98 pounds when he was found.

At this point, am I the only one who thinks Andy crawling through the toilet tunnel is no longer a big deal? If Andy had tunneled into the armory, killed the guards, and rescued Red and Heywood, Shawshank might be on par with this story.

Frank Abagnale Talks His Way Out Of Prison (Catch Me If You Can – 2002)

Thus far, most of these escapes have been pretty unpleasant. Things like sharks, cement life rafts, and leper colonies are to be avoided, if at all possible. That’s what makes Frank Abagnale’s escape so amazing. The son of a b*tch literally talked his way out of prison.

Abagnale was an infamous conman portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. In 1971, he was transferred to a federal prison in Atlanta to begin serving a 12 year sentence. The prison in question had been under investigation for civil rights violations, so when the U.S. Marshal escorting Abangnale happened to forget the proper transfer documents, officials at the prison suspected the new arrival of being a undercover prison inspector.

Abagnale did all he could to encourage this assumption, and landed better food and preferential treatment as a result. Eventually, with the help of friends on the outside posing as federal agents, he was able to convince his captors that he had an urgent meeting with FBI officials just outside the prison. With that, he walked out the front gate in full view of the guards and was driven away by a friend. Finally, a story that is simultaneously more pleasant and more impressive than crawling through a raw sewage pipe.

Unfortunately for Abagnale, he was later recaptured. But at least he had a good story to tell the other inmates upon his return.

The Stalag Luft III Escape (The Great Escape – 1963)

We started this list with a Steve McQueen film. So we might as well end with another.

While digging his escape tunnel, Andy Dufresne created piles of dirt and dust. In order to remove it from his cell without being detected, he hid the debris in his pants and dropped it down the inside of his pant legs while walking in the exercise yard. Maybe he got the idea from watching The Great Escape during a prison movie night.

The Great Escape is based on the true story of a massive World War II P.O.W. escape from Stalag Luft III, a Nazi prison camp for Allied Air Force officers located in what is now Poland.

Much like Dufresne, the Stalag Luft III prisoners became adept at dumping tunnel dirt in their exercise yard. But unlike Dufresne, the prisoners at Stalag Luft III were simultaneously digging three 100-meter tunnels. To make matters worse, the men were forced to dig these tunnels 30-feet deep in order to avoid detection by seismograph microphones at the camp’s perimeter.

When all was said and done, 200 prisoners making roughly 25,000 trips secretly removed an estimated 130 tons of earth to build the escape tunnels. Not to mention the fact that the tunnels were equipped with air pumps, electric lighting, and even a homemade wooden railway system, and the entire operation was carried out using homemade tools created from materials scavenged from within the prison itself. It certainly makes Andy’s little sewer-pipe trick look like amateur hour by comparison.

Of course, of the 76 men who escaped Stalag Luft III, 73 were recaptured, 50 of whom were executed on Hitler’s orders. And while Hitler did eventually end up blowing his brains out just like the warden in Shawshank, it wasn’t the direct result of the P.O.W. escape (experts think he may have been suffering from depression, or something like that). So while the men of Stalag Luft III had a much more impressive escape, Andy and his escape to Zihuatanejo gets the nod for better long term planning.