Retrospective - The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994), R, 142 minutes - On this date twenty years ago, my favorite movie of all time quietly hit theaters across the country. The funny thing is, like most people, I never saw The Shawshank Redemption in the theater and would have no idea that it would have a lasting effect on me until almost three years later when I first encountered it.  In October of 1994, I was a sophomore in high school and a substantial amount of my time was taken up by basketball or just about any other sport that caught my attention for longer than five minutes.  I was the backup point guard on the JV team that year.  I hadn't yet discovered my love for film and my love of sports dominated my free time. Looking back, my discovery of Shawshank a couple of years later was the result of a unique set of events that explain my initial draw to the film and how it has grown to become so important to me over time.

"Since I am innocent of this crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient that the gun was never found." - Andy Dufresne

As memory serves, I wasn't exposed to this film until sometime after it had started airing on cable television.  This was before the explosion of the internet and the various methods of media consumption we have today.  If you missed a movie in the theater, you had to wait months (sometimes over a year) for a film to get released to home video.  Even then, it still took a while for a film to begin airing on television unless you paid for the premium movie channels (which my family didn't).  The first time I can remember seeing Shawshank was sometime during the fall of 1997, early in my freshman year of college.  I was channel surfing when I probably should have been studying and ran into it mid-way through.  I wasn't sure what I was watching, but was intrigued by a cast that included Tim Robbins (at that time I knew him from Bull Durham) and Morgan Freeman (who I knew from Driving Miss Daisy and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves).  It was a prison film based in Maine, which as a native New Englander I found interesting and my curiosity was piqued.  I watched the rest of the film from that point and found myself wishing that I had caught it from the beginning.  I lucked out because it was being re-aired immediately (it had to have been TNT or TBS as both were known for their repeated encore presentations when they first acquired the rights to a film).  From the very first sequence that splices together scenes from both Andy Dufresne's trial and the brutal murders that the story is based around, I was immediately hooked.  I didn't just watch the hour or so that I had missed when I stumbled upon the film, I was mesmerized and watched the entire thing.

"I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you'll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank." - Warden Norton

What I would learn shortly thereafter was that Shawshank was based on a short story written by fellow New Englander and horror master Stephen King, originally titled 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption'.  It took another year or so, but I eventually picked up a copy of King's short story anthology Different Seasons (which also collects the source material for two other films: Stand By Me and Apt Pupil).  I was intrigued to see how closely the ninety two page novella compared with its almost two and a half hour long film adaptation.  To my surprise, the answer was pretty damn closely.  Sure there were a few differences, the largest of which being Red's appearance (in the book he is written as a short, portly, Irishman), otherwise the film was surprisingly faithful to King's story.  The tragedy, emotion, corruption, friendship, hope, and personal perseverance were all there.  Reading the original story just strengthened my love for the film.  I have always appreciated when a film is able to successfully capture the essence of its source material, but when it is done as reverently as a film like The Shawshank Redemption, I appreciate it even more.

"We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy - he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer." - Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding

For those who may not be familiar with The Shawshank Redemption, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker who is arrested for and wrongfully found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover.  He is sent to Shawshank State Penitentiary in Maine to serve two life sentences back to back.  There he meets Ellis Boyd 'Red' Redding (Morgan Freeman) and begins serving his time under the watchful eye of the God-fearing Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) and his hard-ass captain of the guard Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown).  Initially thought to be an arrogant outcast because of his quiet, unassuming ways, Andy has a number of run-ins with fellow inmates, guards, and even the warden himself.  Sometimes he's the victim, sometimes he's the instigator thanks to his stubbornness and strong personal code of ethics. Over the years, Andy slowly gains the respect and camaraderie of a number of other inmates, a process helped significantly by his friendship with Red.  Warden Norton assigns Andy to work in the prison library, assisting elder inmate Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore), and eventually asks him to put his banking skills to work as the prison's in-house accountant.  It is then that Andy becomes privy to Warden Norton's corruption and begins planning a way to escape Shawshank.

Heywood: The Count of Monte Crisco...
Floyd: That's "Cristo" you dumb shit.
Heywood: Alexandree Dumb-ass. Dumb-ass.
Andy Dufresne: Dumb-ass? "Dumas". You know what it's about? You'll like it, it's about a prison break.
Red: We oughta file that under "Educational Tools", oughten we?

The cast is spectacular.  Both Robbins and Freeman would go on to win an Oscar for other roles (both won Best Supporting Actor - Robbins in 2004 for Mystic River and Freeman the following year for Million Dollar Baby), but I would argue that their portrayals of Andy and Red are the best of their careers.  Gunton, Brown, Whitmore, William Sadler (Heywood), Gil Bellows (Tommy), and Mark Rolston (Bogs Diamond) all bring so much depth, character, and emotion to the story that to this day, whenever I see one of them on tv or in a movie I immediately think of their role from Shawshank.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention writer/director Frank Darabont.  Long before he developed The Walking Dead for AMC, he wrote a treatment of what would become The Shawshank Redemption and impressed Stephen King so much that he was able to secure the rights for adapting the story for five thousand dollars.  The story goes that King never cashed the check and was so happy with Darabont's vision that years later he returned the check to the director with a note that said "In case you ever need bail money.  Love Steve."  The Shawshank Redemption was Darabont's first full length project as a director and he would go on to write/direct two other adaptations of King's work: The Green Mile (1999) and The Mist (2007).  The score by Thomas Newman is also wonderful, helping to convey the shifts in emotion throughout the film.  It has also been borrowed from on a number of occasions for trailers of other films.

"You know the funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook." - Andy Dufresne

Despite now being held in such high regard, The Shawshank Redemption had a fairly short theatrical run.  It lasted just ten weeks during the fall of 1994.  It got a bit of a second wind when it received a six week re-release in a push for the Academy Awards the following spring.  All in all over sixteen weeks, Shawshank barely made back its production budget of about $25 million by grossing $28,341,469 domestically.*  Total worldwide gross came in at about $58,500,000.**  None of those figures are all that impressive.  The film has definitely found another life in the years since via the television and home video markets.  It may not have broken any box office records, but it certainly caught the attention of critics.  It garnered a whopping seven Academy Award nominations in 1995 including Best Picture (producer Niki Marvin), Best Actor in a Leading Role (Freeman), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (Darabont), Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins), Best Sound (Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Michael Herbick, Willie D. Burton), Best Film Editing (Richard Francis-Bruce), and Best Music, Original Score (Thomas Newman).  Despite all of the praise, Shawshank didn't take home a single Oscar, losing out to the likes of Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Legends of the Fall, and The Lion King.  Even today it would be hard to argue against any of those films, but the real surprise is that Robbins wasn't nominated at all for his portrayal of Andy Dufresne.  Robbins is every bit the lead in this film as Freeman is and nominating one over the other instead of nominating the second even in the Supporting category is ridiculous.

Red: Forget?
Andy: Forget that... there are places in this world that aren't made out of stone. That there's something inside... that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours.
Red: What're you talking about?
Andy: Hope.

I think that my draw to this film is primarily a result of two things. First and foremost, it's a great film. Secondly, its a factor of where I was at that stage of my life. I was starting my college career at Virginia Tech after a short two year stint living in eastern Tennessee. My father's job had moved us from New Hampshire where we had spent the previous twelve years. At that time, I clung to just about anything and everything that reminded me of my New England roots. The fact that it was based on a Stephen King novel set in Maine, I felt as if I could relate to it more than most others around me at the time. That sounds crazy when I say it now. Of course I had never been to prison or even had any major life obstacles to overcome at that point so there really was no real way for me to relate to the film. But as time went on, I became more enthralled with the story itself, no matter where it took place. The themes of friendship, perseverance, and strength of character portrayed in this film have stuck with me through the years. I can't even begin to count how many times I've actually seen Shawshank due to the number of times I've caught it part way through on tv. It is a film that I'll finish no matter where or when I see it.  On top of the random tv encounters, it's a film that I pull out of the collection and watch in its entirety at least once a year.

"I guess it comes down to a simple choice really... get busy living, or get busy dying." - Andy Dufresne

Followers of this blog know that I will quite often recommend a film after viewing.  In many cases, that recommendation is accompanied by a caveat or two because I know that they just aren't for everybody.  The Shawshank Redemption is the rare film that I highly recommend to anyone whenever I have the chance.  It is rated R, so of course common sense applies pertaining to kids.  Clearly I'm biased here, but I'm not the only one who feels this way about this film.  The Shawshank Redemption currently ranks #1 on's Top 250 Films list (based on over 1.2 million user rankings), and is regularly in the top two.  From time to time it swaps places with The Godfather (1972), both are currently rated a 9.2 out of 10 and placement fluctuates depending on the total number of votes received.***  If you're not familiar with The Shawshank Redemption, you really should find the time to give it a watch.  Worst case scenario, you'll expose yourself to an excellent film.  Or better yet, you may discover a film that you revisit time and again, finding not only entertainment but a deeper attachment to like myself and so many others have.

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