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May|June 2003
Lights, Camera, Lockdown By Dashka Slater
Taking Liberties By Harry N. Scheiber and Jane L. Scheiber

Lights, Camera, Lockdown

The long and rocky relationship between Hollywood and Alcatraz.

By Dashka Slater

ONE DAY IN LATE 1935, guards at the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz Island noticed a small airplane circling overhead. This was a troubling development. The prison, which held some of the nation's most notorious criminals, was located in the most visible place imaginable—smack in the middle of scenic San Francisco Bay—but it was shrouded in what reporters called a "veil of secrecy." No outsiders, other than members of the inmates' immediate families, were allowed on or near the island, and those visits were limited to once-a-month conversations through a glass partition. Inmates were forbidden to discuss their experiences on "the Rock" during visits or in their letters. Even the tour boats that circled the island had learned to keep a safe distance. Boats that drifted within 200 yards of shore received a stern warning through a megaphone and, if they didn't change course, a shot across the bow.

No warning was possible for the airplane circling the prison, however, so the Alcatraz guards just opened fire. The plane, riddled with bullets, was forced to land in nearby Marin County. The aviators fled before they could be identified, but The San Francisco Examiner reported the reason for their sojourn over Alcatraz: They were trying to take motion pictures of the prisoners.

It was an inauspicious beginning to the long and complex entanglement between Alcatraz and the movies. The first two Alcatraz films, Alcatraz Island and The Last Gangster, arrived in theaters in 1937; the most recent, Half Past Dead, came out last November. In the 65 years in between, Alcatraz has been the subject of some two dozen movies and has made guest appearances in many more. There have been prison movies, horror movies, comedies, romances, action films, cartoons, and even porn flicks set on Alcatraz. It's rare for a Hollywood set to last even a few weeks after a film is complete, but the prison is so popular with filmmakers that a meticulous replica of its cellblock, first created for the Clint Eastwood film Escape From Alcatraz, has resided on a Culver City soundstage for more than 20 years. It has provided penal ambience for hundreds of movies, television shows, commercials, and music videos.

The set mimics the look of the real prison down to the shape of the rivets; Hollywood's depiction of life in the prison, however, has never been particularly accurate. From the beginning, Hollywood has fashioned an image of a prison that is designed to crush its prisoners. Over time, Hollywood's sympathies have evolved—the movies of the '40s and '50s celebrated the prison, while the movies of the '60s and '70s paid homage to the prisoners—but the draconian image of the prison has remained. Alcatraz officials have alternately embraced and rejected this characterization, and over the years the relationship between the Hollywood and the island prison has veered wildly from romance to suspicion.

THE FEDERAL PENITENTIARY AT ALCATRAZ opened on August 22, 1934. It was to be a prison like no other, a high-tech, escape-proof, super-maximum warehouse for the nation's most incorrigible bad guys. Even hard-bitten federal bureaucrats turned unexpectedly lyrical when describing it. "Its buildings and towers . . . at times appear like an ancient forbidding fortress; at times like a gigantic battleship moored in the swirling cross-current a mile and a half from the mainland," declares a Bureau of Prisons annual report on the facility. "From the city's hills and bridges; from ships passing through the Golden Gate; from every point of vantage, travelers from far and near gaze at the fabled isle and wonder."

The gawkers had plenty to wonder about. Prison authorities treated every detail of life on Alcatraz as if it were a military secret. Journalists toured the facility just before the first inmates arrived in August 1934, but after that the island was strictly off-limits—except when a dramatic escape attempt or a prison riot forced officials to answer reporters' questions. The secrecy had been designed to deflate the celebrity reputations of gangsters like Al Capone, who had enjoyed special treatment at other prisons. James A. Johnston, the prison's first warden, believed that egoism was the chief failing of recidivists. His prescription was total isolation and total anonymity. At Alcatraz, he promised, Capone and his ilk would become "forgotten men."

But secrecy had other consequences as well. Because of the notoriety its inmates enjoyed, any tidbit of information about Alcatraz became news. Reporters hung about the docks, waiting for released convicts to land. The resulting interviews were the source of a steady stream of "Inside Alcatraz" accounts, with headlines like "Bad Men Tamed," "Freed Convict Describes Violence and Madness," and "Felons' Dread of Alcatraz Dungeon Told." The articles emphasized the prison's harshness and brutality, chronicling its excruciating rule of silence, which required prisoners to stay mute except during a two-hour recreation period on Sundays, and describing the dank "Spanish dungeons" where prisoners were sent for disobeying rules.

Many of these accounts were embellished, and some of the more lurid tales were pure fabrications. Alcatraz was tough but not barbaric. Inmates were guaranteed the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and medical attention; everything else—work, exercise, visitors—had to be earned. Minor infractions—failing to finish the food on your plate, talking while in the cellhouse, sassing a guard—brought a swift reduction in privileges. More serious violations, like taking a swing at a guard, sent prisoners to the chilly darkness of "the hole." Particularly obstreperous prisoners were hosed down with cold water from the bay, a practice that earned the warden the nickname "Saltwater" Johnston.

Alcatraz was hardly a country club, but it was still one of the better-run prisons in the United States. Inmates had their own cells, an improvement over bunking with another con. These five-by-nine-foot cells were cramped, but each had its own light and running water, and prisoners could order as many books as they wanted from the prison library. The cellblock was kept at a comfortable 70 degrees and the food was considered some of the best in the prison system. Johnston expected strict adherence to his rules, but he was also known as a reformer who had banned corporal punishment while running California's Folsom State Prison.

To Johnston and his superiors at the Bureau of Prisons, Alcatraz was a monument to modern penology. The leg irons, beatings, and indefinite stays in the hole that defined life in most state prisons were not part of the institution's regime; to Johnston they were relics of a more primitive era. His Alcatraz used modern science to control its prisoners, high-tech gadgetry like metal detectors and automatic tear gas dispensers, and up-to-date theories on inmate management and discipline. "There are no cruelties, no tortures, no corporal punishments," he told a group of lawyers in 1939. "There is no laxity, no helter skelter running around, no soft soaping. . . . There is strict adherence to the necessary routine."

These modern practices meant little to the outside world. The average citizen still thought of Alcatraz as something out of the Dark Ages—a back-to-basics combination of Devil's Island and the Tower of London—because that was how the newspapers portrayed it. "Let other prisons that will experiment with kind treatment and other means of rehabilitation install honor systems and test psychological theories," The San Francisco Examiner explained when the prison opened. "Alcatraz aims to keep prisoners securely behind bars, as remote from the possibility of escape as from contacts with the outside world."

Hollywood seized upon this image of a grim prison fortress isolated on a barren island. Throughout the '30s, '40s, and '50s, films like Train to Alcatraz, Prison Train, King of Alcatraz, San Francisco Docks, and The House Across the Bay picked up the mythology of the "Inside Alcatraz" accounts and ran with it, depicting the prison as a place that made even hardened cons quake in their leg irons.

These jaded depictions were fine with the Bureau of Prisons. While Alcatraz's keepers may have been reformers, they were also pragmatic, realizing that a prison with a medieval reputation was more helpful than one thought of as modern. The prison had been designed to isolate the federal prison system's worst troublemakers, escape artists, gang leaders, and racketeers who might otherwise lure first-time offenders into "a life of desperation." But it was also used as a threat against unruly inmates in other prisons. Legend has it that wardens of some federal prisons kept a picture of Alcatraz in their offices as a warning to troublesome inmates of the price of misbehavior. Alcatraz's value as a deterrent far exceeded whatever correcting influence it had on the fewer than 300 prisoners kept there at any one time. Hollywood's misconceptions and misrepresentations helped spread the fear that the bureau hoped would keep criminals (incarcerated or otherwise) in line.

HAD THE BUREAU BEEN UNHAPPY WITH THE NEGATIVE PUBLICITY, it surely would have let Hollywood know about it. At the time, Hollywood was operating under the Hays Production Code of 1930, which laid out strict guidelines for the portrayal of cops and criminals, stipulating that "the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin." J. Edgar Hoover's FBI also kept close tabs on Hollywood activities, often requesting script changes to make sure that his bureau was never portrayed in an unfavorable light. In the movies, the men who were sent to Alcatraz deserved to be taught a lesson. The warden who greeted them, usually with a severe lecture and a description of the grim life that awaited them within, was portrayed as a stern but fair disciplinarian.

On those few occasions when Hollywood deviated from this script, Bureau of Prison officials made their displeasure felt. Desilu Productions' television series The Untouchables portrayed the heroic G-man Eliot Ness cracking down on gangsters and racketeers. But when "The Big Train," a two-part episode about Al Capone's transfer to Alcatraz, showed Capone bribing corrupt prison guards at the Atlanta federal penitentiary, Bureau of Prisons chief James Bennett was so incensed that he threatened to have the licenses of ten ABC affiliates revoked if they aired the second half of the show. The show aired anyway, though with a disclaimer: "Nothing herein is intended to reflect unfavorably on the courageous and responsible prison guards who supervised Al Capone during his internment in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta, and during his transfer from Atlanta to Alcatraz."

The first Alcatraz movies combined the edification of a moral parable with the vicarious thrill of an inside look at what studio publicists called "the prison fortress all gangland dreads." Both Alcatraz Island and The Last Gangster told the story of a racketeer sent to the Rock on tax evasion charges (as was Capone) who learns the hard way that this isn't any old hoosegow.

While neither film is an enduring work of cinematic artistry, the movies share the distinction of having established many of the conventions that would define Alcatraz movies into the next century: the cocky new inmate who realizes that Alcatraz is unlike other prisons; the tough-talking warden who explains that escape is impossible; the veteran inmate who tells the new prisoner that Alcatraz has broken many a weaker man. While the prison film had already become a genre of its own, the Alcatraz variety was distinguished by its use of superlatives. This was no generic prison, it was Alcatraz, the place buffeted by killer tides in San Francisco Bay and policed by a rule of silence, infallible metal detectors, and guards specially trained in "target practice, scientific friskin', jujitsu, and readin' codes," as a con explains in Alcatraz Island. The movies emphasized that when it comes to tough, "this joint beats them all." "Wait til you get in your bunk tonight," a fellow con tells Alcatraz Island's Gat Brady after he arrives at Alcatraz. "The fog settles in over the bay and the siren in the lighthouse begins to moan. It's just the same in here as being in your grave—only you miss the fun of being dead."

For the next quarter-century, Alcatraz starred in more than a dozen morality tales, and in each one, the moral was the same: Alcatraz is hell, and hell is where you go when you don't behave. Most were gangster flicks of one kind or another, but Alcatraz prisoners also joined the fight against Hitler in the 1942 release Seven Miles From Alcatraz ("We're hoodlums but we're American hoodlums") and were shot up with a radioactive substance designed to cure "a rare blood disease" in the atomic-age thriller Experiment Alcatraz. Whatever the plot, the underlying message remained that Alcatraz was a place where bad guys learned their lesson.

BY THE END OF THE 1950S, the Federal Production Code Administration Office had lost much of its power to regulate movie content, as had the House Un-American Activities Committee. Hollywood, reveling in this new-found freedom, began making movies that challenged conventional thinking about American institutions, Alcatraz among them. In 1962, United Artists released Birdman of Alcatraz, a drama-cum-polemic starring Burt Lancaster as the Alcatraz inmate Robert Stroud.

Inside Alcatraz, Stroud had a reputation as an intelligent and violent hypochondriac with a knack for stirring up trouble and two murders under his belt. But to his supporters outside Alcatraz, Lancaster among them, Stroud was a symbol of the redemptive powers of the human soul. He was a man with a third-grade education who had used his time in prison to become an expert on bird diseases, a man whose quest for dignity was being thwarted by the prison system's obsession with conformity. The Bureau of Prisons had successfully frustrated two earlier attempts to make a movie about the famed bird doctor. In 1948, the bureau transferred a perfectly healthy Stroud to the island's prison hospital after a Hollywood producer expressed interest in making a biopic. Stroud would be kept in the hospital for 11 years. Having Hollywood glorify an inmate, particularly one known within the prison system as an agitator, was a direct affront to the prison's mission to be an isolated island of forgotten men. But by the time the Birdman script reached Lancaster, Stroud was already famous, thanks to the success of the book on which it was based. Still, the bureau was so hostile to the film that when the boat used to film Alcatraz exteriors broke down and began to drift toward the island, Lancaster's producing partner Harold Hecht panicked, certain that the Alcatraz guards had orders to fire on them.

For Lancaster, the lesson of Birdman of Alcatraz was that "the initial concept of prisons—to send men away to be punished—is not only inhuman but outdated and outmoded." Up to this point, Alcatraz movies had never questioned the prison's raison d'être. Swaggering gangsters had to learn to play by society's rules, and the first step was to teach them that they weren't as special as they thought they were.

In Birdman of Alcatraz, however, the humiliating routines of prison life aren't the cure, they're the disease. Alcatraz embodies a rigid and compassionless system that strips the humanity from all but the few who have the strength to resist. While earlier movies portrayed the strict regimen as necessary and effective, Birdman and later films saw those same rules as arbitrary, cruel, and ultimately ineffective. Near the end of the movie, Stroud meets with the Alcatraz warden Harvey Shoemaker, played by Karl Malden. Shoemaker has confiscated a critique of the penal system Stroud has penned, and he tells Stroud that he has yet to show a single sign of rehabilitation. Stroud challenges him to define the term, explaining that his dictionary says it means "to invest again with dignity." "That's why you're a failure, Harvey, you and the entire science of penology," he says. "You rob prisoners of the most important thing in their lives—their individuality."

The movie inspired an enormous outpouring of support for the still-incarcerated Stroud. Reviewers urged their readers to write Attorney General Robert Kennedy demanding Stroud's release, and supporters gathered tens of thousands of signatures at tables in front of the movie theaters. The campaign was ultimately unsuccessful—Stroud died a year later at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Mo.—but it signaled a major change in public feeling about prisons, particularly about Alcatraz. People were no longer enthralled by rumors of the torments allegedly experienced on the Rock. They wanted to hear about people who had regained their dignity by fighting the Rock and winning.

Aware of the shift in public opinion, the bureau did its best to soften the prison's harsh image. "The establishment of Alcatraz Prison, contrary to general belief, was not primarily or solely to make punishment more severe," the bureau explained in its 1960 annual report for the facility, a report that made much of the prison's sports program, orchestra, and other opportunities for "wholesome recreation." The island's reputation was increasingly out of step with the times, and the prison was facing more tangible problems as well. After years of exposure to the salt air, the fortress was literally falling apart, and the cost of repairs was prohibitive. The prison closed in 1963, less than a year after the release of Birdman of Alcatraz.

In Hollywood, however, the prison remained open, as grim and unforgiving as ever. In the language of the movies, Alcatraz now symbolized the iron heel of the System, crushing the souls of men whose only crime was their individuality. When Clint Eastwood's Frank Morris arrives on the Rock in Escape From Alcatraz (1979), he encounters a place where an elderly inmate is driven to cut off his own fingers with a hatchet after the warden seizes the paints, canvases, and brushes that made the old man's prison life bearable. Morris and two allies pull off the escape. By doing so, the film implies, they have subverted the institution's brutal logic—they haven't just made a break, they've struck a blow for freedom.

IN 1972, AFTER LANGUISHING IN BUREAUCRATIC LIMBO for nearly a decade, Alcatraz became a national park, a move that allowed Hollywood to begin making movies on the Rock itself. (John Boorman, the director of the 1967 Lee Marvin thriller Point Blank, filmed a few scenes on the island when it was under the interim jurisdiction of the General Services Administration, but the prison had otherwise been off-limits to filmmakers since it opened.) Being filmed on location hasn't made the Alcatraz movie any more realistic, however. Take Murder in the First (1995), for example. Loosely based on an actual 1941 murder trial, the movie tells the story of an inmate named Henri Young (Kevin Bacon) who has been reduced to a trembling, crippled wreck by a three-year stay in the Alcatraz dungeons. This Alcatraz isn't an orderly institution with a stern set of rules; it's a chaotic and violent house of horrors. "You are among the selected sinners the state has decided should simmer in scum," an overly alliterative associate warden (Gary Oldman) tells Young just before slicing his Achilles tendon with a razor blade.

Driven mad by this and assorted other tortures, Young murders another inmate in the mess hall. A young lawyer (Christian Slater) convinces him to try a new defense—"Devil's Island made me do it"—and the two men put Alcatraz on trial. In the end, a jury finds the institution "guilty of crimes against humanity," the associate warden is discredited, and Young takes a moment to relish his victory before committing suicide in his cell.

Though it had been 30 years since the close of the federal prison system's one-time crown jewel, the movie prompted the Bureau of Prisons to make its first public statement about Hollywood's portrayal of Alcatraz, issuing a point-by-point refutation of the film's depiction of Young as a hapless victim and the prison as a barbaric torture chamber. "Equally groundless and unfair is the depiction of officers at Alcatraz as sadistic brutes," the statement huffs, adding a bit of film criticism for good measure: "The evil prison officer is one of the oldest and least imaginative movie clichés, and one of the most misleading." In the close-knit world of corrections, the men who presided over Alcatraz continue to be respected as pioneers in their field, the kind of tough-but-fair disciplinarians portrayed in the movies of the 1930s.

THE PRISON'S CURRENT CARETAKERS, the rangers of the National Park Service, are ambivalent about Hollywood's presence on the Rock. They love the glamour and the money that the movies bring to the island, while at the same time feeling duty-bound to disabuse tourists of some of the misconceptions that Hollywood movies have promoted. When visitors arrive at the Alcatraz dock, a portion of the ranger's welcoming speech is usually devoted to puncturing cinematic myths. "How many of you saw Birdman of Alcatraz?" Ranger Craig Glassner asked a crowd of tourists recently. "At the very time that movie came out, Stroud was meeting with the parole board and telling the parole board that there were still people he needed to kill, [and] that's why he wanted to be paroled. If you saw Murder in the First, [you may not realize that] many inmates have said that Alcatraz was the safest place they ever stayed, and the treatment by the guards was the best."

It's Glassner's job to debunk Tinseltown's tall tales, but he is also a film buff who has made a hobby of collecting Alcatraz movies and movie lore. To him, the films are as much a part of the island's history as its rusting guard towers and cramped cells. Without them, the island's career as a monument would have ended years ago. The Park Service originally thought interest in the prison would peter out within five years. Instead, the park receives 1.5 million visitors a year, about five times as many as Antietam or Little Big Horn and nearly as many as Mt. Rushmore. Most are drawn to the island by movies like The Rock and Escape From Alcatraz. "Hollywood's the reason they come," Glassner said. "It's almost as if we need an Alcatraz movie every five years to keep us in the public eye."

Alcatraz was always as much a P.R. ploy as a prison. The real Alcatraz never lived up to its billing as the harshest prison for the worst criminals, but then again, it didn't have to. Hollywood stepped into the breach, as it continues to today. Filming on Alcatraz is expensive, time-consuming, and cold, and it's also frustrating. The Park Service has a long list of restrictions: Film crews must stay away from the nesting grounds of the island's birds; they must be careful not to deface the historic buildings; and they must do their work without interrupting the regular flow of tourists. But Hollywood has kept coming anyway.

Last fall's Half Past Dead presents an Alcatraz that has reopened as a maximum-security prison for the worst federal prisoners. The movie revives the conventions of previous Alcatraz films: the warden's welcoming speech, the warning about the impossibility of escape, the tour of the prison's high-tech gizmos. But the movie doesn't ask us to condemn Alcatraz. "Alcatraz is a bad place for bad people," a Bureau of Prisons official played by Morris Chestnut explains near the start of the film. "If there's any discomfort behind these walls, well, that's how it should be."

Today, as tourists line up for island tours, their curiosity whetted by such movies, a kind of interdependence has emerged between the Hollywood dream factory and America's penitential nightmare. Hollywood is responsible, in large part, for making the former penitentiary recognizable as a prison rather than just a decaying collection of empty Depression-era buildings. Escape From Alcatraz brought fresh coats of paint to the mess hall and D block, as well as the yellow stripes (which never existed when the prison was open) that now run down the main cellhouse corridor. Murder in the First funded the restoration of a guard tower on the dock, and The Rock paid for the removal of hazardous waste. Leftover Hollywood props—metal detectors, cell cots, benches, even pillows—have stayed on as permanent adornments, giving tourists a sense of what the penitentiary was like when it was operating. Over time it has become difficult to distinguish Hollywood's Alcatraz from the real one.

Dashka Slater last wrote for Legal Affairs about Aristotle's law of identity. Her book on Hollywood's Alcatraz will be published this fall.

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