“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it.” ~ Red
“The funny thing is, on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” ~ Andy
“I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.” ~ Warden Norton
“Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” ~ Red
“Couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams?” ~ Heywood
“They broke the door down before I could take requests.” ~ Andy
“You’re that smart banker who killed his wife, aren’t you? Why should I believe a smart banker like you? So I can end up in here with you?” ~ Captain Hadley
“There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left.” ~ Red
“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” ~ Andy
In 1994, director Frank Darabont released The Shawshank Redemption, a prison drama based on a novella by horror master novelist Stephen King. It is a character study featuring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, and deals with themes like hope, the meaning of freedom, the depth of despair, and the power of friendship. The story, which for once was not a horror tale by King, nonetheless follows the writer’s tendency to set his narratives in Maine. The film opened to great acclaim, getting numerous Oscar nominations, but was a box office disappointment. However, in the years that followed, home video and cable viewings fuelled a second life for the film, which has become a beloved film among audiences, regardless of its dark subject matter.
In 1947, Maine banker Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is convicted of the murders of his wife and her lover and sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary for life. He seems certain to break- some of the convicts place bets on which of the newcomers will be the first to fall apart on their first night behind bars- and yet he doesn’t. Andy makes friends with other convicts, chiefly Ellis “Red” Redding (Freeman), who knows how to get just about anything smuggled into the prison. Heywood (William Sadler) and Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) are two more convicts that Andy befriends. Life in prison is hard, and the brutality is not glossed over- Andy is initially the target of a gang, while the warden (Bob Gunton) and the chief of the guards (Clancy Brown) are both corrupt and ruthless. And yet in his own way, Andy’s spirit and integrity aren’t imprisoned, and he comes into his own.
Hope is a strong theme throughout the film- in a status where one is surrounded by the hopelessness of spending life in prison, particularly wrongfully, the story strongly plays off the concept of maintaining a person’s sense of self worth. Where Red is cynical about the idea of hope, Andy believes that hope is something that can’t be caged up, that can’t be taken away, and that theme strongly underlies the entire film. Even in moments of seeming despair- Andy being at a low point nineteen years into his sentence and speaking of a dream of a Mexican coastal town- that sense of hope prevails. As harsh as a film about life in prison is, the story is uplifting, with an ending that just brings out a smile every time.
Darabont secured the film rights from King for the story, and wrote the screenplay, investing the themes of the story into the screenplay. It turns out that Rob Reiner, who had adapted a King story into Stand By Me, had wanted to helm the tale, with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford in the leading roles. I could see Ford as Red, but Cruise as Andy Dufresne would have been a disaster. Darabont filmed a good part of the movie in an Ohio reformatory, which does a good job of conveying the bleakness of prison life. Other sequences were done on soundstages, but the locations and staging all come across as authentic in detail, evoking a twenty year period in the mid-twentieth century, as well as the harshness of life in prison. This extends to things like props, clothing, and vehicles, all of which are of the time, and particularly to the movie pin-up girl posters which end up providing such a vital plot element as the story unfolds. Darabont also chose the ideal composer for the score; Thomas Newman’s music for the film has taken on a life of its own, infused with themes that are strongly character based, filled with humour, and celebrating freedom.
The cast is one of the best you can think of assembled for any film. James Whitmore, the late character actor, gets the part of the elderly convict Brooks, a prison librarian who’s spent most of his life behind bars. There’s wisdom and frankness in the character, a friendly sort of man who’s become institutionalized behind bars and doesn’t know what to do with himself on the outside. Gil Bellows appears as a young convict, Tommy Williams, a brash talker who joins Andy and Red’s circle of friends and as it turns out has prior prison time and information that proves vital to a great turning point in the story. As cocky as the character comes across, there’s an underlying sense of principle in him too. William Sadler has a terrific role as Heywood, a convict who tends to be rougher around the edges than Brooks, but also an inherently decent man.
Clancy Brown, who’s spent a good part of his life as an actor playing villains, gets a good role as the nasty Captain Byron Hadley, the chief of the guards at Shawshank. He’s brutal, sadistic, corrupt, and sees nothing wrong with administering beatings (or worse) to convicts to keep them in line. The character’s a bully and a thug, a thoroughly unpleasant person. While he’s entirely unsympathetic, Hadley’s a memorable character for the actor to play. Bob Gunton is another character actor who’s spent his career playing various roles, including strict and authoritarian people, which certainly factors into his role as Warden Samuel Norton. The character presents himself as a pious, devout Christian, but the man is deeply corrupt, ruthless and vindictive. He’s a sanctimonious, self righteous hypocrite, and one of the great joys of the film is watching things go completely upside down for him.
Morgan Freeman plays the pivotal role of the convict Red, who narrates the film and gives the audience their point of view character. It’s the perfect casting for the role (aside from Ford, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, and Robert Redford were also considered for the character’s casting). Freeman gives the character authority, warmth, and authenticity. Red has a richly developed voice, a bit of cynicism in his outlook on life, and a whole lot of depth. Because he serves as our point of view, his worry at a critical point in the film- he believes Andy to be suicidal- becomes our worry as well, and Freeman plays into that, bringing the character so strongly to life.
Tim Robbins is perfect as Andy, a laconic man through much of the film. He doesn’t know if he’s a murderer- the night of the murders he got himself so drunk he doesn’t remember- but he comes across as what he is- an inherently decent person who doesn’t lose hope or his own integrity as he faces life behind bars. His defiance is expressed more in a subdued way. There are moments that he seems to be drifting into despair, and it’s a wise thing as it turns out to not really see Andy’s inner thoughts- the payoff late in the film is all the better this way. He expresses his thoughts in his behaviour and his words, and so we get to know him more at a distance than we do with Red. When we see that payoff play out, in an ingeniously crafted way, it becomes all the more satisfying. Convict or not, Andy is a man whose spirit can’t be caged, and Robbins brings that throughout his performance.
While The Shawshank Redemption brings across life in prison in its brutality, with the language and violence one would expect of that, it is ultimately an uplifting, tremendously satisfying film about the power of the human spirit, the strength of friendship, and hope in humanity. It’s become a favourite of viewers after the fact, and has taken on a reputation as one of the best films ever made.
Which would have never happened had Tom Cruise been cast as Andy Dufresne, so we really dodged a bullet.