Years ago, the world’s penal systems such as Alcatraz Penitentiary; (refer to Appendix A) were biased, corrupt and unjust. Today if such a system existed and was identified there would be immediate action. ‘Murder in the First’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ are two similar yet equally engrossing pieces of film-making; both films are set in the 1930’s and 1940’s in American prisons and both convey the similar message. The Shawshank Redemption was directed and written by Frank Darabont who adapted horror master Stephen King’s 1982 novel ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’. This film’s main characters consisted of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), Boyd Ellis Redding “Red” (Morgan Freeman), The Warden (Bill Gunton), Hadley (Clancy Brown) and Brooks played by James Whitmore. The Warner Brothers film ‘Murder in the First’ was inspired by the true story of Alcatraz inmate Henry Young. The film is generally fiction, but portrays an example of some of the in-mates’ hardship. The key actors in this film are Kevin Bacon as Henry Young, Gary Oldman as the Warden and Christian Slater as James, the defending attorney. Throughout both films the main issues are the corruption within the penitentiaries by a select number of guards and the wardens, the rehabilitation and redemption process which the in-mates had to encounter (punishment), the brutality of the prison system, and the friendships which were formed within the prisons.
The subject matter/plot and characters of both these movies are similar in many ways they both contribute the same message. The movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ has excellent examples of the issues of corruption and brutality of the prison system. It is based upon a young banker (Andy Dufresne) who is sentenced two life imprisonments for the accusation of the murder of his wife and her lover. While in prison Dufresne quickly befriends Ellis Boyd Redding “Red” (refer to Appendix B), is regularly ridiculed by the general prison population, is often assaulted by a gang of in-mates (Sisters) who rape and beat him, and also is hired by the warden of Shawshank prison as his personal accountant, and in exchange for his help with tax evasion, embezzlement, kickbacks and other legal activities, he receives a library job and privileges. As the plot of the film develops so does Dufresne and his intentions which are exposed at the end of the film. ‘Murder in the First’ is also a film which reinforces the themes of injustice and brutality within the penal system. It is about a young man (Henry Young) who is thrown into the ‘Alcatraz’ jail for stealing $5 to feed his starving sister. While in the prison, he is later thrown into the solitary confinement for three years for an escape attempt, which left him mentally and physically impaired (refer to Appendix C).
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When Young is released out of the hole and returned to the general population of the prison, he “snaps” and plunges a spoon into the artery in the neck of another prisoner (Tommy Lee Jones).
Young is then taken to trial for first degree murder, where an inexperienced lawyer (Christian Slater) is assigned as his defense. The film follows events which end in an uplifting and extraordinary relationship between two men; an Alcatraz in-mate and a principled young attorney, who both in different ways triumph over adversity.
The themes throughout both these films illustrate the same message; corruption and injustice, brutalization of men (guilty or innocent), triumph over adversity and friendships. The ‘Shawshank Redemption’ explores the issues of power, authority and corruption by using Andy to reveal the depth of corruption within the prison system, “Yeah. The funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be crook” (Andy).
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In the film ‘Murder in the First’, the central issues are based upon the penal system; level of corruption which leads to unlawful solitary confinement throughout Alcatraz penitentiary and how two inconsequential men battle to change the system for the better, “You can’t change Alcatraz . . . it just is” (Henry Young).
In ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, the main messages are portrayed by the characters; one of the main characters (Red) narrates throughout the film which gives the audience a clearer understanding of what the inmates went through. Themes throughout both these film also collaborate the psychological consequences of imprisonment within the prisons, “These walls are kind of funny. First you hate them, and then you get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways” (Red, Shawshank redemption).
The characters within these films also reinforced the themes. In ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, Tim Robbins (Dufresne) is a good quite enigmatic character whose agenda remains the mystery till the very end, while Freeman (Red) gives truly an excellent performance as cynical prisoner who ends up with a genuine heart. As for the supporting cast; they were also excellent in their roles, such as James Whitmore (Brooks) who plays a very touching role of an old man who is said to be institutionalized. Whereas for the film ‘Murder in the First’, the acting is quite different; Kevin Bacon (Young) plays a disturbed man, where if you have seen him in other films this is not his style. Christian Slater (James) on the other hand was cleverly picked for his role; he played a sympathetic yet strong character which suited him fine.
Directors and film crews for both these movies have used suitable film techniques which make both films more interesting to the viewer. In both these movies the prisons are both viewed by long shots to show how remote and forlorn they both are. In ‘Murder in the first’ while Henry Young is in his cell, high angle, overhead shots, and dark lighting are used to manipulate the viewer to perceive him as powerless and alone. After Henry Young is released out of his cell, an exceptional camera shot is used; you start to see some of the movie out of Henry Young’s eyes and when you do the images are blurred and confusing which gives an indication of how Henry Young had mentally changed. Throughout both these films, music is used to control the emotions of prison life. Also in the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’, an excellent camera shot is used when Andy escapes out of jail and into the river. The camera shot in taken from above and then spirals down towards Andy enlarging him, which illustrates how the water is washing away his old life and a new life is being created.
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Both these movies were constructed for the sole purpose to inform people how easily unnoticed corruption and unthinkable brutality went on in America’s penal systems. In comparison, both movies are very similar, as they both had corrupt wardens, guards who beat prisoners which was most of the time was not provoked, two men in each formed close relationships and in the end of both films justice was made for the better of the people. They both also bring their point across in the similar way, yet viewing both I believe that the better one of the two is ‘Murder in the First’; it is more believable whereas ‘the Shawshank Redemption’ starts off very realistic, yet the conclusion is like a fairytale. Such films are more suitable audiences of an older age because they can relate to such matters and have a deeper understanding of the complex issues involved.