'The Shawshank Redemption' hit US cinemas 25 years ago this week and it remains an all-time movie favourite. It's held first place on IMDb's Top 250 for the past decade, beating even 'The Godfather'. What is it about the film that makes it so beloved?
Based on Stephen King's novella 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' (definitely not catchy so a good thing they abbreviated it), the 1994 feature failed to win any Academy Awards and was a box office failure (mind you, regarding the latter, movie rentals and TV airings ensured it made its way to viewers). 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Forrest Gump' proved far more successful that year. Still a quarter of a century on, it sits alongside both as some of the most popular movies ever.
'The Shawshank Redemption' could have been an entirely different movie. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Depp, Nicholas Cage and Paul Newman were all considered for the role of Andy Dufresne. Moreover, the movie also almost ended with Red (Morgan Freeman) ambiguously riding a bus towards the Mexican border rather than that reunion on the beach.
Somehow, it all came together just right. But with audiences having more diverse tastes that ever, how has it managed to remain so adored by so many?
As noted above, it could well have been the case that Tim Robbins was not our Andy Dufresne. But it's not just Robbins that was essential to the success of 'Shawshank'. All fans of the film can readily admit that Morgan Freeman's voiceover narration really added to the immersion and and emotion of the experience. Those wise, rugged, gentle vocals really got to audiences.
The film takes Red's perspective on what goes on in the prison and this serves to set up Andy as initially intriguing and subsequently a whole-hearted, good man. Andy believes he needs to atone and does his best to look out for his fellow man and improve their quality of life at the prison. In his selflessness and giving nature, he is not left out to dry but fully redeemed.
The pure and genuine nature of the friendship between Andy and Red is also a great source of enjoyment for fans. It's interesting that Red's realism counters Andy's dreamy, hopeful nature. Yet ultimately, Andy's hope conquers Red's fear, which stems from the terror that he will end up institutionalized like fellow inmate Brooks [James Whitmore], unable to cope with the outside.
And though it is talked about less often, a shout-out is needed for Whitmore's performance. His story as Brooks - which the camera actually leaves Shawshank to follow - is heartbreaking and a key component of the story. It's hard to keep faith when all seems so lost. But to the viewer's inspiration, Andy is unrelenting and determined to not give up.
We've already touched on the emotional rollercoaster provided by 'Shawshank'. But it is in the ups and downs of the film too that stay with the viewer long after the film.
At the start of Andy's stay in jail, he is sexually assaulted by "the Sisters". But soon after, he finds allies in Red and his friends when he makes a deal with a guard to bring them beers in exchange for helping the guard avoid being inheritance tax (see below). Later, when Andy is injured so badly he is sent to the infirmary, his friends make a gift package for him when he gets out. Later still, Brooks' suicide is followed by a sizable book donation that sets about a movement for improving the education of all Shawshank's inmates. Thus tragedy and frustration is continuously followed by satisfaction and elation.
Some fans say 'The Shawshank Redemption' changed their lives. Perhaps it was the realisation that the Stephen King adaptation is so very like life in that rainy as it seems, the sun will eventually break through.
There's something about a prison breakout that's just an utter pleasure to watch. 'The Shawshank Redemption' was by no means the first of its kind with'Escape from Alcatraz' and 'The Great Escape' coming before. But the circumstances that lead to the getaway are so precise and minimal, you can't help but get great glee from it.
There was the bible with the little hammer in it, which the warden nearly caught. There's the fake persona Andy launders money for the warden through and then uses to cover his escape. Then who can forget the pin-up girls, which seem so innocent. I think one of the most satisfying sounds in cinema has to be that stone the warden throws breaking through the poster and down the tunnel Andy constructed.
Then after all that planning, nothing goes wrong and Andy actually pulls it off. His final trial is crawling through 500 yards of shit - which in my view, earned him his freedom alone. And this coming after ten years in prison and all the good deeds he has done? That has to be redemption.
Then there is the iconic imagery which 'The Shawshank Redemption' leaves you with long after the credits. You can't have a movie classic without some enduring shot - consider Charlton Heston mourning on the beach at the end of 'Planet of the Apes'. For 'Shawshank', it is that picture of Andy topless in the pouring rain, arms outspread in victory. Although for others, their favourite is the final image of the movie as the credits roll - Andy and Red reunited by the sea, hugging.
They say Hollywood is a factory for dream-making and 'Shawshank' does just that. In one scene (see first video), Andy speaks of his dream of living in Zihuatanejo, Mexico; by the end, it's come true. So maybe it's the enduring characters, the friendships, the deep emotions, the exhilarating breakout, or the unforgettable iconography. Whatever the case, it's easy to see how 'The Shawshank Redemption' has moved so many and will continue to do so for twenty five years more.