Great Escapes
Django, Dufresne and
Houdini Unchained
A CultureMap®
by Gabriel Rosenberg
Published on 7/14/14

Escape artists work in stealth and cunning the way other artists work in acrylics or marble. Their utensils are rock hammers, lock picks, nail files, fake heads and hollowed-out Bibles. Their audience is stunned prison guards. You won’t find their work on exhibit: Given a wall at the Guggenheim, they’d just tunnel through it to 89th Street. This map looks at some legendary escapes, from the cells of Alcatraz to the plantation of Calvin Candie.

The Shawshank Redemption  (Frank Darabont (dir.) | film | 1994)
to  Escape From Alcatraz  (Don Siegel (dir.) | film | 1979)

Escape From Alcatraz is based on the real-life 1962 jailbreak of three inmates from San Francisco Bay’s maximum-security Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary—allegedly the prison’s only successful breakout. (Some maintain the men drowned in the waters surrounding Alcatraz Island.) Serial prison escapee Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood, and two fellow inmates escape through a ventilation grille, leaving papier-mâché heads as decoys in their beds. Eastwood was later considered for the role of Red in The Shawshank Redemption (Morgan Freeman ultimately got a best actor Oscar nomination for his performance as Red), and though Eastwood’s on-screen prison cred would have attracted viewers, his reappearance as an inmate might have raised suspicions that Shawshank was an Alcatraz sequel.

Even without Eastwood, Shawshank unabashedly borrows prison clichés from Alcatraz: the life termer with a secret pet he feeds cafeteria grub; a digging implement hidden inside a Bible; a brainy protagonist working in the prison library; a vindictive warden who dishes out excessive punishments; and an escape made by digging through walls—though what takes Shawshank’s hero Andy Dufresne 19 years to accomplish with a rock hammer takes Frank Morris a few months with a nail file fused to a spoon handle.

The Shawshank Redemption  (Frank Darabont (dir.) | film | 1994)
to  The Count of Monte Cristo  (Alexandre Dumas | novel | 1844–1845)

Edmond Dantès and Andy Dufresne are two tunneling escape artists with an appetite for slow, cunning vengeance. Dantès reinvents himself as the titular Count of Monte Cristo after his escape from an island prison and infiltrates Paris’s upper crust to punish the three men who framed him as a traitor. The Shawshank Redemption’s Dufresne (Tim Robbins)—a former banker whose cruel, vindictive prison warden forces him to launder money for 19 years—crawls through his tunnel toting a bag of incriminating evidence that he supplies to a local newspaper. When the cops come for the warden, he, like one of Dantès’s accusers, chooses suicide over prison and ignominy.

In one Shawshank scene, a group of prisoners is cataloguing a library donation when one snickers at a certain novel: “The Count of Monte Crisco…by Alexandry Dumbass.” Dufresne smirks—his own half-finished tunnel is concealed behind a poster in his cell—and replies, “You’d like it. It’s about a prison break.” Jests Red, another inmate, “We ought to file that under ‘educational.’” The most important lesson learned from Count and Shawshank, however, is not how to escape but how to endure confinement. Both works close on the same four-letter word: hope.

Storming of the Bastille
to  The Count of Monte Cristo  (Alexandre Dumas | novel | 1844–1845)

The 1789 storming of the Bastille was a mob-led prison break that sparked the French Revolution. At the time, Paris’s Bastille, a 14th-century fortress and symbol of royal tyranny, held only seven political prisoners; although all were freed, 98 citizen jailbreakers died freeing them. The raid was deemed successful nevertheless, and it incited the revolts that ultimately felled France’s oppressive aristocracy. Among its residents, the Bastille boasted the “Man in the Iron Mask,” a mysterious unnamed prisoner fictionalized in Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne (1847–1850). By the time another Dumas protagonist, Edmond Dantès, materializes in Paris in the 1830s as the wealthy Count of Monte Cristo, after escaping his own 14-year imprisonment in the Château d’If, revolutionary mobs have demolished the Bastille.

Dumas dramatized this historic uprising in his 1853 novel Taking the Bastille. His interest in the French Revolution (and in all subjects romantic, adventuresome, daring, bold and gallant) came from his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a revolutionary hero; distinguished swordsman; right-hand-man-turned-enemy of Napoleon; bullet-wound, stab-wound and shipwreck survivor; prisoner of the Neopolitans; and the first black general in French history. His experiences were fodder for the adventures of his son’s three musketeers and daring, devilish count.

The Count of Monte Cristo  (Alexandre Dumas | novel | 1844–1845)
to  Django Unchained  (Quentin Tarantino (dir.) | film | 2012)

The name Dumas is a contraction of du mas, French for “of the farm.” Novelist Alexandre Dumas’s ancestors were supposedly named to signify their status as slaves: They belonged to the estate. Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre, was the freeborn son of a former Haitian slave and a French nobleman; when Thomas-Alexandre was 14, his father sold him into slavery briefly, for a ship ticket, and then brought him to France and repurchased him (he was listed in his ship’s manifest as Slave Alexandre). In Europe he was cultivated as his father’s nobleman son and within a year was a French count.

Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist Western Django Unchained is about a freed African American slave, Django (Jamie Foxx); his white confidant, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz); and their attempt to rescue Django’s wife from captivity. The film hangs a pivotal scene upon the question of Alexandre Dumas’s ethnicity. Schultz’s assertion that Dumas was black offends the self-righteous white-supremacist slave master Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Dumas admirer who even named his top slave D’Artagnan after the hero of The Three Musketeers. Tensions keep rising until shots explode and Django, his wife and all hell break loose.

Django Unchained  (Quentin Tarantino (dir.) | film | 2012)
to  Stalag Luft III

Between 1526 and 1860 an estimated 100,000 American slaves escaped bondage. Some revolted openly; others found freedom by cover of darkness. Another 500,000 fled Southern plantations during the Civil War. Django Unchained depicts an act of resistance—a freed slave, Django, and a white bounty hunter, King Schultz, liberate Django’s wife, Broomhilda—but instead of referencing historical American rebellions, the film borrows from Germanic folklore. “Broomhilda” is a mispronunciation of Brünnhilde, the name of a fabled Valkyrie battle spirit who is lulled into a magic sleep and encircled by a fire that only the warrior Siegfried can breach. Schultz tells Django “every German knows” her escape story.

Richard Wagner’s interpretation of the Brünnhilde story in his operatic Ring cycle is the best-known. During World War II, the anti-Semitic 19th-century German composer became the Nazis’ musical patron saint. Officers in the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp may have played Wagner over the loudspeakers, a common soundtrack in such places. Django director Quentin Tarantino layers the Nazi references by recasting Christoph Waltz as Schultz; the actor had played a Nazi in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), and the choice reinforces the brutality of slavery in the antebellum South with the brutality of fascism.

Stalag Luft III
to  Harry Houdini  (1874–1926 | American escapologist)

Stalag Luft III (1942–1945) was one of the highest-security Nazi prison camps. According to the 1963 film The Great Escape, which dramatizes one notorious breakout attempt, “every escape artist in Germany” was held there. Despite its expert design—it was ringed with seismograph microphones and built on sandy subsoil to prevent tunneling—Allied prisoners dug three 100-foot-long tunnels under their barracks. Nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry, the tunnels were 30 feet deep, bolstered with wooden planks scavenged from bunk beds and illuminated with candles made of soup-skimmed fat. On the night of March 24, 1944, 76 prisoners shuffled out through “Harry.” Seventy-three were caught, many executed on the spot.

Only one Harry truly mastered the art of the breakout. Billed as the Great Escape Artist, Harry Houdini busted out of handcuffs, straitjackets, jail cells, buried caskets and submerged milk cans for public entertainment (though never all at once). Some scholars think his escapism was a psychological compulsion: Born Erik Weisz, the son of a rabbi in Hungary, Houdini moved to the U.S. in 1878 to flee Europe’s growing anti-Semitism. He took a stage name to conceal his background, like many Jewish performers, thus beginning a lifelong subconscious escape act.

Harry Houdini  (1874–1926 | American escapologist)
to  The Count of Monte Cristo  (Alexandre Dumas | novel | 1844–1845)

Harry Houdini performed publicity stunt jailbreaks in the early 20th century, earning the title of the Elusive American. Touring the U.S. and Europe, he asked local crime enforcers—sheriffs, chief constables, Scotland Yard superintendents—to lock him up. Left alone, he would escape in minutes. In one absurdly comic episode in a Washington D.C. prison, he broke out of murderers’ row, unlocked eight other cells and shuffled the inmates around as a joke on the guards. In a Boston prison, Houdini escaped a cell, scaled a wall and called the prison superintendent from an outside telephone, all within half an hour.

Turning from stage to film in the 1920s (he made five features), Houdini tried unsuccessfully to adapt The Count of Monte Cristo, one of his favorite books, into a movie. Its daring jailbreak fits right in with Houdini’s act: Hero Edmond Dantès escapes his cell by hiding in the body bag of a dead prisoner, which is hurled from a cliff to an oceanic grave. Like Houdini, Dantès unshackles himself underwater. From there he swims, boards a ship, finds treasure on the Tuscan island of Monte Cristo and rematerializes as a wealthy count in Paris. Ta-da!