By John H. Foote
When Stephen King comes to mind, obviously the urge is to think of the great horror novels which have made him the greatest and most prolific writer of our time. Yet King, a born storyteller has stepped outside the horror genre many times with great results often coming to the screen as beloved, critically acclaimed films.
The first was Stand by Me (1986), directed by Rob Reiner based on the short story “The Body”, dealing with a quartet of preteens in the late fifties, early sixties who go on an overnight trek to see a dead body in the woods. Beautifully acted by its cast of young actors, including a River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman, the film explores the intensity of friendship at that young age.
Yet the great King adaptation, horror or not, remains the brilliant prison film The Shawshank Redemption. First screened at TIFF in September of 1994, the film drew rave reviews from the critics and ovations at the festival. Yet when released later that fall, it was a box office flop. No one could explain why, but the film played to empty cinemas, disappointing the producers, director Frank Darabont, and the cast. Released on video very quickly, something extraordinary happened, the film found a devoted, loyal fan base and word of mouth spread like wildfire.
How had audiences missed this film?
When the Academy Award nominations were announced, The Shawshank Redemption had notched seven including Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman) and five others. The studio immediately re-released the film back into theatres where this time it played to packed houses, this in addition to the wildly successful video rentals it was enjoying. The Screen Actors Guild nominated both actors, Freeman and Tim Robbins for Best Actor, and despite being snubbed for an Oscar nomination, Darabont was nominated by the DGA Awards as Best Director. It was an incredible groundswell of support, hell, of love for a film no one had initially gone to see. Was it the title? The fact the director was unknown, and the actors were recognized as artists not necessarily movie stars? Who knows?
The film was re-released into cinemas after the Academy Award nominations were announced, so along with being available on screens, audiences could also buy or rent the film at home. The awareness and love for the film continued to soar.
The story spanned four decades and the prison became a microcosm of life, of the world outside the grey walls. Andy (Tim Robbins) is jailed wrongly for the murder of his wife and lover, though the evidence was all circumstantial. As an educated banker, Andy was going to have a rough ride in prison and he knew it. Though the inmates thought he was weak, he proved to by anything but and began a lifelong friendship with Red (Morgan Freeman), a long-time convict with no chance of getting out soon. Red “gets things” for the inmates, and Andy asks for a small rock hammer to begin his ritual of carving chess pieces.
Through the early years, Andy’s talents as a financial wizard are put to use doing taxes, and he works for the Warden creating various accounts for the dirty money pouring into the prison and the sadistic Warden’s pockets. Through all this Andy and Red forge a deep, undying friendship, an unbreakable bond.
When a young man comes into the prison with a story that could clear Andy, the Warden has him shot, making clear Andy will never get out. Very quietly he forges on until one morning he has vanished, only his personal items and a poster of Raquel Welch remain in his cell. In anger the Warden throws one of the carved chess pieces at the poster and it tears through the paper, exposing Andy’s escape route. Through the years, with so much time on his hands he broke through the wall, chipping endlessly with his rock hammer, until he had a hole large enough to escape. Then, with the banking information from the Wardens safe, he dressed in the suit he stole, put on the Warden’s shoes, walked into the bank and withdrew close to $400,000. As a parting gift, he sent a detailed list of dirty money acquired by the Warden to the local newspaper, sending the police to the prison with arrest warrants.
The Warden kills himself, many of the guards are arrested, and Red watches with giddy satisfaction at the chaos Andy created.
And in his own unique way Andy stays in touch with Red, inviting him to join him in the islands if he ever gets out.
Masterfully directed by Darabont, the film is a magnificent debut work from an unknown filmmaker, truly stunning. His immense courage as a director began with the casting of Morgan Freeman, changing the red-haired Irishman to a black man because Freeman was the perfect actor for the role. Freeman was perfection as Red, a cynical inmate who discovers hope through his friendship with Andy. Wise to the ways of the world within the walls, Red is very much a student to the younger banker. Freeman gives one of the greatest performances in film history, capturing the anguish and complete truth of this character.
Tim Robbins was superb as Andy, an intelligent man who moves through the hell of his life with a bemused look on his face and when he escapes, we know why. His patience was staggering, his plan long range and he stayed on the path, never wavering. Andy knew all along he was going to betray the devious Warden, that he was going to get out, that he would drive in a convertible, the top down, the sunbathing his face.
Veteran actor James Whitmore is superb as a tired old con who, when paroled, cannot live outside the prison walls. His life is prison, he knows no other, and the moment they release him, we know he is doomed.
Bob Gunton is perfect as the hypocritical Warden, claiming to follow God, while doing murder and lining his pockets. His smug arrogance is undone in a flash and he takes the cowards way out. We want to see him brought to justice because he is so damned sanctimonious and egotistical, so above the inmates when he is exactly like them.
Beautifully narrated by Freeman, the film is a powerful look at how life in prison can suck the soul out of men. We see it happening to Red until he meets Andy, until he discovers Hope.
This is an American masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.