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"I ain't spending my life here, I ain't living alone

Ain't breaking no rocks on the chain gang, I'm going down and heading home

Gonna make a jailbreak."
ACDC, "Jailbreak"

I'm innocent -- innocent I tells ya! They think they can keep me in this tin can forever? With all these plastic meal trays and soap that's just begging to be whittled into a gun? And this gang of jailbirds with nothing to lose? Give me enough time, and I'm outta here. And the D.A.'s given me all the time in the world...

This is a trope about prison breaks, which may or may not be from The Alcatraz.

The average prison break plot usually breaks down into a common series of elements, which have to happen more or less sequentially or the audience will call shenanigans. The details are often conflated, depending on the time available to tell the story; but rarely are they skipped altogether.

The Big Idea: Prison movie protagonists are almost always the new guy, who on his first day does something to gain a lifer's trust. The lifer will then hip the fresh meat to the escape plan and introduce the conspirators. Nearly always, the plan is fortuitously just days away from fruition, which is a writer's trick for confining the action to a short stretch of time. In this case, the scene may be a complete flashback of all the painstaking steps taken up to this point.

Inevitably, someone will say "You must be crazy! They'll shoot you down like a rabid dog if you try to climb those walls!" Sure it's crazy. Crazy Enough to Work.

Oh no, the snitch! Every prison has a snitch, a weaselly character who gives information to the guards in exchange for cigarettes. At a critical conspiratorial moment, he'll overhear the wrong conversation and our heroes have to decide how far they'll go to shut him up. This is almost always a choice between murder and making him an accomplice. In the latter case, you can bet the snitch will pansy out at the last second.

The Night Before: Let's go over the plan, one last time. Every conspirator plays a part, and they'd better have it down cold. Depending on how complicated this plan is, we may cut away while the conversation is superimposed on a visual demonstration of what's supposed to happen. Not that it matters because...

The Great Escape never goes as planned. Close calls abound, someone chickens out or dies, and the way out, inevitably if improbably, runs right through the big nasty antagonist.

There are different flavors of escape, of course. There's the classic tunneling-under-the-wall-with-spoons, the hiding-in-the-laundry-cart, the diversionary Prison Riot, and of course Dressing as the Enemy and the Air Vent Passageway escape. Any permutation of these will always involve a Sleeping Dummy, and almost always MacGyvering crude weapons from prison issue goodies because it's a No-Gear Level. Bonus points if the plan hinges on bribing a guard with some nigh-impossible favor. The protagonists may be there because They All Met in a Cell. Not to be confused with The Great Repair, which is about repairing a damaged vehicle to escape a Closed Circle.

Examples of Great Escape include:


Comic Books

  • Batman: Blackgate was a one-shot about Cluemaster orchestrating a Great Escape from Blackgate Penitentary.


Film

  • Named after the movie The Great Escape. The "wartime escape story" is practically its own sub-genre.
  • The Shawshank Redemption, which gives a Shout-Out to The Count of Monte Cristo.
  • Stir Crazy (1980) is a parody of the prison movie in general, starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Just because. Includes an escape. Also, a rodeo. But not in that order.
  • Dr. Evil's escape from normal prison in the third Austin Powers movie involved starting a riot to cover the escape. He was able to manipulate the prison's populace after demonstrating how, you know, evil he is.
  • Chicken Run: The Great Escape but with chickens.
  • The Last Castle features a general gathering an army of military convicts to break free from a military jail.
    • They just want to take over the prison. They never plan to actually escape. The general knows that any success will be only temporary and simply wants the army to stop ignoring the abuses by the warden.
  • Escape from Alcatraz (1979) asks what if the famous Alcatraz prison break starred Clint Eastwood? One of the few "non-fiction" Great Escape movies out there, and all the weirder that the actual event utilized so many of the classic jailbreak story idioms.
  • Passage To Marseille (1944) tells a ridiculously trope-laden story where Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart are somehow French prisoners escaping Devil's Island by raft. Once successful, they find out their motherland has surrendered and hijack a boat to England. So they can learn to fly planes and run bombing raids over occupied France. In your face, history!
  • Each Dawn I Die (1939) stars Jimmy Cagney as a journalist framed for murder. Contains every sub-element of this trope, yet ends rather realistically with a riot-plus-hostage-situation that goes south. Don't worry, everything else that happens is gloriously ridiculous.
  • Escape to Athena (1979). Though mainly an action movie, especially the second half which takes place in a secret Nazi V2 missile base.
  • Von Ryan's Express. Prisoners of war take over a train and, posing as Germans, try to make their way to Switzerland.
  • Like The Great Escape, Escape from Sobibor includes a grand scheme to free hundreds of prisoners. Also slimilar to The Great Escape, the film is based on actual events that occurred in World War II.
  • The entire plot of Pappillon revolves around the titular character's numerous attempts to escape (with varying degrees of success).
  • In Life Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence play convicted felons who eventually succeed in escaping.
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • Toy Story 3
  • Sucker Punch.


Literature

  • The Colditz Story is another WWII example.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo has Dantes escaping from the Chateau d'If before setting out on one hell of a quest for revenge.
  • Papillon plays this straight, averts it and subverts it. He escaped several times. One is an incredible good plan, another time the plan failed, and he finally does it by throwing himself to the sea with a barrel, his least elaborated plan.
  • In Dan Abnett's Eisenhorn novel Malleus, when Eisenhorn is imprisoned and about to be transfered to trial, his jailor will question him in a manner he would not survive. His friend urges him to eat his dinner, he does and falls vilely ill, and when he is being transferred for treatment, his friends rescue him. Earlier, an enemy had given Eisenhorn half of a poison; his friends had added the other hand to the meal.
  • Honor Harrington is responsible for one of the grandest examples on record; she managed to take over a whole prison planet and made it back to friendly space with half a million freed inmates and a fleet of her own[1].
  • In the Sten novel Revenge Of The Damned, the first half is this trope: Sten assembles a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits, finds that the religious dude who turned out to be a kick-ass miner dug a great tunnel with the help of his converts, and takes them to freedom. Well, it turned crazy- two of the escapees ended up dead, two bought and ran a casino (very well, actually) and the religious dude ends up converting an entire enemy village.
  • In The Borders of Infinity, Miles Vorkosigan is sent in to rescue one single man from a Cetagandan concentration camp. Finding that his intended rescuee is catatonic and dying, he opts to organize the escape of all 10,000 POWs. In-universe, it's the second biggest mass breakout in recorded history. And he sets the whole thing in motion while bare-ass naked, having been robbed of his clothes within moments of arriving at the camp. Miles Vorkosigan: a man to whom "Tries Too Hard" has no meaning.
  • "Battle Without Banners" is this trope in a prison controlled by a future American government which has apparently been taken over by some form of fascism. None of them make it.
  • Danger, Human! High Explosive. is about bear-like aliens testing an ancient prophecy (which said that if they try to interfere with the prophecy they'll ended up speeding it) about humans and their supposed danguerous unkown ability, so they abduct a human, make him near immortal and enclose him in a Tailor-Made Prison to test the prophecy.
  • In the short story "Good Friends and Good Family" (scroll down) by Desmond Warzel, Sparks manages a prison break with a little outside help. Say hello to his little friend...
  • In Robert E. Howard's "Rogues in the House" this is arranged for Conan the Barbarian on the condition he assassinate someone after.
  • Harry Potter: Sirius Black, the only wizard to successfully escape Azkaban right under the Dementors' noses (or lack thereof). In the later books, a few other Death Eaters accomplish this. However, they basically cheated since the Dementors switched sides and thus Azkaban became rather unreliable.
  • In almost all the chapters of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea the Great Escape is discussed. Aronnax, Counseil and Ned Land areprisoners in the Nautilus. To regain their freedom, they must attempt a succesful Great Escape because there will not be a second chance.


Live Action TV

  • Breaking his brother out of Fox River is Michael Scofield's overall goal in the first season of Prison Break.
    • Season 3 features another Great Escape in "Sona"-prison.
  • Parodied something rotten in Ripping Yarns: "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B."
  • MacGyver compresses the entire trope into a single episode in "The Escape".
  • A Great Escape (Neal desperately wanting to find his missing girlfriend) kicks off White Collar.
  • In an episode of Young Indiana Jones, Indy is in a German prison fortress for Allied POWs during World War I and attempts to escape with a fellow prisoner, a young Charles De Gaulle.
  • In the first episode of the third season of Leverage, it opens with the team busting Nathan from a courthouse. It soon cuts to Nathan, behind bars, pointing out to Sophie that it would never work, and he points out the numerous flaws in it. He then breaks out of prison anyway, and pins the warden/Corrupt Corporate Executive as his accomplice in one episode, just because he can.
  • Dean and Sam Winchester get themselves into a prison so they can deal with the ghost that's killing guards and inmates. None of their escape plans get given away until the end of the episode, but it turns out their contact, Deacon, is in fact one of the prison guards, which is helpful.
  • Subverted in The X-Files; Mulder's escape from prison is a spur-of-the-moment decision on the part of his friends to escape execution and comprises only about five minutes of the two-hour series finale. It does feature a nice Heel Face Turn from former FBI archnemesis ADA Kersh.
  • Parodied in a sketch from the finnish sketch comedy show, Ketonen Ja Myllyrinne. Two prisoners outline their escape plan, which includes things such as flying a helicopter over the Gulf of Finland to Mexico and killing guards with a fork. Also, the guy who they're enlisting to pilot the helicopter has two days to learn to fly a helicopter from a book.


Video Games

  • The Legend of Zelda the Wind Waker and The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess.
  • Sissel aids in one in Ghost Trick for Detective Jowd, a very annoying task. Which quickly proves pointless, as Inspector Cabanela recaptures him moments after his escape.
  • In Chrono Trigger this happens to the protagonist fairly early in the game...and then it happens again later.
  • As the name suggests, Rayman 2: The Great Escape begins with one of these.
  • The ZX Spectrum game The Great Escape, inspired by the movie of the same name.
  • This is how Act 2 of Infinite Space begins.
  • In Sly 2 Neyla betrays Sly and Murrey, and Benntly must then free them from prison.
  • The second level of Call of Duty Black Ops has the player character leading an epic escape from a Soviet gulag.
  • The Babylon Project: In one level of the Earth-Brakiri war, you escape a Brakiri prison, commandeer a Brakiri fighter and try to make it to the nearest jump gate, dodging fire from Brakiri cruisers and fighters.
  • In The Game of the Ages, you pick your way out of prison with a bit of wire and end up holding a sword to a guard's throat as you walk out the door.


Web Comics


Western Animation

  • The Monarch's escape plan in The Venture Brothers involved the cooperation of several fellow imprisoned villains... who all looked the other way when he made his move due to interference by the Guild of Calamitous Intent. He got out with help from King Gorilla. Also, he was innocent.
  • "The Boiling Rock" episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender had basically all of the common elements, plus kung fu, wall crawling and fireballs. The gargantuan Chit Sang forced his way into the plan, causing the first attempt to fail. The group that eventually got out stayed together.
  • This is the plot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode "The Big House", where the turtles plan to escape from a Triceraton prison.
  • This trope makes up the plot of the Super Mario Bros Super Show episode "Escape from Koopatraz".
  • Jimmy Two-Shoes, the episode "Jimmy in the Big House".
  • In the Futurama movie Into the Wild Green Yonder, the Feministas plan one of these (with Bender's help).
  • An episode of The Simpsons parodied The Great Escape with Maggie placed in daycare while Marge rehearsed for a play. Instead of actually escaping, the plot was to liberate all of the confiscated pacifiers.
  • Young Justice: Icicle, Sr. attempts to stage a mass breakout from Belle Reve in "Terrors".

Notes

  1. however battered some of its units may have been
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