Five Movies About Athletes in Prison
Like war, prison is the setting for a LOT of movies. There are plenty of sub-genres of prison films, including women-in-prison exploitation flicks, prison escape movies, going into prison undercover movies, and future dystopia/sci-fi prison movies. There are also a number of movies about athletes in prison, as well as inmates who only discover, once they’re locked up, that they’re athletes.
The essence of incarceration is losing not just your freedom, but your freedom of choice. Being in prison means you lose the right to choose where you go and what you do. You also lose the ability to choose the person you want to become. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner tells the story of Colin, a disaffected teen in early 1960’s England. Colin is forced to confront the question “Is your life still your own when you’re behind bars?”
We watch Colin as he’s sent to a juvenile detention center, and we learn through a series of flashbacks about the path he took to get there. Like the film itself, his life is gray. He isn’t a particularly likable character, but we can’t help but be at least a little sympathetic to his plight. Being a teenager sucks, plain and simple. Colin occasionally tries to improve his lot in life, but there’s an sense that he’s always going to lose, regardless of the choices he makes.
We discover that Colin has a knack for running, and the warden begins to show Colin special favor — including the right to run outside the detention facility unsupervised — in hopes that Colin will perform well in a cross country race between the boys from his facility and the boys from a local prep school. Colin’s abilities for distance running come as much from his toughness than from any particular physical aptitude. He might not be naturally gifted, but he knows how to suffer. Running is ultimately the only thing Colin can control in his life, and having that control helps him find a tiny bit of peace.
There’s always something a little weird about a straight-up comedy being set in a prison. I can’t imagine that day-to-day life behind bars is particularly fun (or funny). But Stir Crazy works.
Skip (Gene Wilder) and Harry (Richard Pryor) are framed for armed robbery, and sentenced to 125 years in prison. The warden, who runs a crooked convict rodeo, discovers that Skip (despite his decidedly un-macho and un-cowboy demeanor) is naturally gifted at bull riding. Skip eventually agrees to compete in the warden’s rodeo, but uses the event as an opportunity to try to escape. Skip is a special kind of athlete. He relies on his inherent talents rather than deliberate training or hard work. And as we often see with “natural” athletes, they compete with a sense of joy and wonder, even if the competition happens to occur under less than joyful circumstances.
The lesson seems to be that athletes — particularly those in prison — can use their talents to help them achieve something they truly want. Stir Crazy tries to force a romantic story line, which wasn’t necessary, and certainly it wasn’t the reason I kept watching. This is a movie with two incredibly gifted comedic actors, at the top of their games. (Interesting side note: Stir Crazy has the highest IMDB rating of all the films directed by Sidney Poitier.)
Even though The Longest Yard is ostensibly another prison comedy, there’s also a good measure of violence, brutality and menace, so we’re never tempted to say “gee, that looks like a fun place to be!” And, to be clear, OF COURSE we’re talking about the 1974 Burt Reynolds version here, and not the unnecessary Adam Sandler remake or the U.K. soccer version. Reynolds plays Paul Crewe, a former NFL quarterback (now disgraced due to his involvement in a point shaving scheme) who’s sent to prison after taking his girlfriend’s car and leading police on a high speed chase. Another cruel warden (although, unlike the warden in Stir Crazy, this one is genuinely sadistic) wants Crewe to get involved with his in-house sport: the semi-pro football team comprised of the prison guards. Crewe agrees to create and coach a team comprised of convicts, in order to give the guard team a scrimmage opponent. There’s double-crossing and deceit, lots of violence and even a murder. By the end of the film, Crewe has grown by rediscovering the bond among teammates, and the honor of the game itself.
I wouldn’t normally consider a made-for-TV movie to be on the same caliber as a theatrical release, but the 1970’s produced a few notable works, including not only The Jericho Mile (Michael Mann’s feature debut as a writer and director), but Duel (1971) (Steven Spielberg’s feature directorial debut, later re-cut for a theatrical release), Brian’s Song (1971) (the only movie that can make some men cry), Don’t be Afraid of the Dark (1973) (cited by many contemporary horror directors as a highly influential film), Sybil (1976) (an Emmy-winning role for Sally Field that helped establish her as a dramatic actress), and, of course, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978).
Larry Murphy is serving a life sentence for murder, and chooses a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement. He doesn’t associate with other inmates. He just runs. A prison staffer notices that Murphy is running fast, and has him timed. This eventually leads to Murphy getting coaching help with his running, with the goal of entering the U.S. Olympic trials.
The film stands out from the others on this list (and from most other prison films, for that matter) in that the real “bad guys” are the other inmates. The warden and prison psychologist are genuinely interested in helping Murphy improve himself as a person, while the various prison gangs provide a constant threat of violence and death. Murphy isn’t able to get what he’s truly looking for, but his journey around the track helps him stay human. Unlike the slapstick of Stir Crazy, or the cringe-inducing comedic violence of The Longest Yard, The Jericho Mile is a straight up drama. There’s no humor, let alone joy, on the screen.
Released under the title Escape to Victory outside North America, the basic story line follows the now-familiar “guards vs. convicts” set-up, but here the “prison” is a Nazi POW camp, and the prisoners are Allied soldiers. The sport is soccer, and the casting follows the lead of The Longest Yard in that professional players were cast as soldiers and guards, which allows for the in-game scenes to have a measure of realism and excitement.
Victory ups the ante over the other movies here because sport is cast not only a way to maintain sanity and normalcy under the horrible conditions of a POW camp, bit it also provides the possibility of engineering an escape attempt for the POWs. Victory plays well enough for most of the story, but when the drama came to a head and it was time for the characters to make the tough decisions had to be made, I just wasn’t buying it. I didn’t think the choice they were faced with would really require much thought at all. I laughed out loud at some of the dialog in the team’s locker room at halftime, and I thought the choice they made was singularly unbelievable.
While I understand the desire to win in sports is strong, aren’t there some things for which you’re going to be willing to walk away from a game or match?