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Escape From Alcatraz (film review)

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Review of Escape from Alcatraz

I’ve been looking forward to seeing “Escape From Alcatraz” ever since I started reading “Breaking the Rock” by Jolene Babyak. I can’t wait to see what Hollywood got right, what they got wrong and what they left out.

The movie begins with Frank Morris (portrayed by Clint Eastwood) arriving on Alcatraz in 1960. He arrives alone, meaning no other prisoners are with him and it’s during a storm. Mostly this is correct. It was 1960 when Frank Morris hit Alcatraz, other prisoners were with him though.

Next we see how the prison system worked. Basically they mug shot you, strip you of your clothes, do an extremely invasive cavity search and send you to your cell. In the movie they have Frank Morris walk naked down the corridor where all the other inmates can see him, probably for humiliation purposes. I don’t think the author of “Breaking the Rock” ever mentions this so I’m inclined that the director included it because it was more dramatic. Effective for setting a somber mood and it does linger throughout the film. Even during the escape attempt their isn’t much optimism.

There is a whole subplot with another prisoner named Wolf who for some reason thinks he’s looking for a new punk and claims Frank Morris is her. Silly and distracting. I didn’t buy it. Wolf is nothing but a caricature and a plot device. Because of Wolf, Frank is thrown in solitary confinement for a couple of days. Never happened in real life, maybe they thought it would be helpful in setting up the warden as the bad guy but because it was a fabrication, I hated it.

The real story is so much better, that the warden and others were under great financial pressure to cut cost and because of this, holes opened up in their security. Morris and the others simply just took advantage.

This brings me to my biggest grip with the film. The character of Charlie Butts. A dim witted idiot who first believes that another prisoner is Al Capone (whose been dead for a few years) and then later just sort of tags along on Morris’s coattails. Charlie Butts was supposed to be Allen West. Maybe they felt that he was a braggart and didn’t want to give him his due. Maybe the filmmakers felt that West was simply wrong for trying to take credit for the actions of Morris and the Anglin brothers. Whatever the case, they really botched this character.

In reading Jolene’s book, “Breaking the Rock” one thing becomes very clear. That without Allen West then there would be no escape attempt. It was West who conned the guards into putting up blankets above B block, (another thing the film glosses over). In the actual escape, West was painting above B block and kicking dust all over the pristine floor of Alcatraz. The guards liked to keep things spotless, you could practically eat off the floors there. Anyway, West due to all his dusty accidents, convinced the right people to let him hang up some 30 odd blankets above the B block.  At night, when they would sneak out of their cell, Morris and the Anglins had a great work area provided by West. They used this area to work on getting through the vent, building the raft and making wooden paddles, ect.

It was West who kept the plan moving forward and silencing other prisoners who were thinking of talking. I want to be clear that I’m not sticking up for West here because I think he deserved the credit. The facts are this. West was not a nice guy. He was brutal and a racist and I can say that I didn’t like him very much. But without him, the real story of what happened might never have been known. His story has been remarkably consistent over the years. I would prefer a story that kept to the facts as close as possible without having to cheat the viewer. Most people, if they only see the film, will go away thinking that Frank Morris was the mastermind and architect of the whole thing while Charlie Butts was a loser. The film also reduces the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence, to bit players as well.

For what it is, “Escape From Alcatraz” is a good movie and Clint Eastwood gives a great performance. That being said, I was really disappointed. When I first heard of the story I was fascinated by the details of the escape such as: the building of a raft, tunneling out of their cells, making a drill, constructing fake dummies and doing this all the while under the guards noses. The movie I was expecting to see was more of a exciting thriller but like I hinted at before, the movie I got was a slow methodical study of life in prison that also featured an escape.

The ending is another thing that bugs me about the movie. ** Spoiler Alert ** In the film their is this whole subplot about the Warden breaking the spirit of a inmate by taking away his paintings. Before that this inmate always carried with him a yellow chrysanthemum and throughout the film it symbolizes defiant struggle of hope.  At the end of the film the warden is on Angel Island and he finds this flower and the viewer is left thinking that they made it. That they left that flower there as a final f you to the warden since chrysanthemum’s aren’t native to Angel Island. Never happened.

Jolene Babyak’s book, “Breaking the Rock” was exactly what I was looking for in the story. I felt like I got to know, as much as I could, the real Frank Morris, the real Anglin brothers, and the Real Allen West. Their story was fun and full of mystery.

I still like to think that they made it.

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Written by Mr. Lake

April 1, 2011 at 10:46 am

Discovery

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Live blogging the book “Breaking the Rock: the Great Escape From Alcatraz” by Jolene Babyak

PART 7 – Discovery

P. 219. Holding up his fake grill and beating it with his fist, he said, “You may as well lock me up too. I planned the entire escape!”

By seven o’clock in the morning, West had his story ready to go. By the time the guards did the morning count and couldn’t arouse Clarence Anglin, the sh*t more or less hit the fan. The guards quickly found THREE empty cells. And here was Allen West, banging on his fake grill rubbing their noses in it, it being the biggest prison breakout in modern history. By 7:15 the escape siren was blaring. I wonder if the mood with the prisoners was one of triumphant? I’d kinda like to think so. Maybe other convicts hated Morris and the Anglins but maybe they felt some sort of pride in them as well. Pride in the fact that some of their fellow cellmates stuck it to the man and escaped.

I think that the fifteen minute delay from seven to seven-fifteen (when the siren was finally turned on) was due to the guards discovery of a plethora of evidence that this was no ordinary incident; artifacts such as a periscope, glue, paint cans, raincoats and a life jacket! I would have loved to see their faces. A day later someone pried open a can of paint and discovered the small electric motor used as a drill.

P. 224. Officers went about their search quietly, but their silence spoke volumes.

They knew that someone was going to pay for this and unfortunately it looked like everybody was complacent at least on some level. They had to feel guilty about it.

P. 224. But the most damning evidence was the least discussed: the scores of blankets that hung around the top of the block.

Jolene writes that their was almost a slight cover-up about this part of the escape. If it wasn’t for two FBI photos that noted what they are, they would have practically vanished. All reports from the guards and lieutenants on duty (about the escape) neglected to mention those damn blankets. Heads were going to roll.

P. 225. His [West] story, even after repeated tellings, remained mostly consistent.

West is described here as shaking and bubbling with energy. He was proud of what he helped put together. There was no doubt that he was depressed that he was left behind but going through all the detailing of their planning must have a been a reward onto itself.

P. 228. That night, June 12, at 10:15 pm., a homemade paddle matching the one found on top of the roof, was found floating off the northwest side of Angel Island.

Since this was near the intended target of Morris and the Anglins, the FBI initially suspected that they had made it to land.

P. 228. Two days later, on Thursday, June 14, the double-wrapped bags made of raincoat material was plucked out of water halfway between Alcatraz and Angel Island by the U.S. Corp of Engineer debris boat, Coyote.

I think this is where the story begins to change, from a successful escape attempt to a watery grave for the three. That bag contained precious photographs and as well as contacts of people who might have helped them. They wouldn’t have let go of that unless things were going horrible wrong. Unless…they wanted it to be found so people would assume they were dead.

P. 229. The raft was never found. In fact, no physical evidence, directly linked to the three men, ever surfaced on land or sea again.

There were plenty of sightings of the men of course but it produced no definitive proof. A postcard was mailed from Brazil (I think) saying that they had made it but officials determined that it was a hoax. Like so many times in famous cases, hoaxers love to send items to the police or newspapers. They do nothing but add a little more fuel to the fire.

P. 232. On June 20, BOP Assistant Director Wilkinson, speculated for reporters that the raft may have sunk, and if it did, “I’d know who’d go overboard first.” …This was the origin of the rumors that continue until today, that the Anglins killed Morris and escaped without him.

Who knows for sure, it’s entirely possible that if a raft was sinking one might try to lighten the load by forcing a man off. Hopefully they all were wearing their life-vests but if they weren’t they might not had enough time to put them on. Depending on how quickly the raft sank as well, they might not have had time to try and gang up on Morris. Fighting would only have made the situation worse.

P. 233. More than a month after the attempt, On July 17, 1962, a Norwegian ship named the S.S. Norefjell,…about twenty miles west-northwest beyond the Golden Gate Bridge…saw a body floating in the ocean.

Interesting. The body could have been one of the three that escaped. It also could have been one of the many suicides that jump for the Golden Gate Bridge every year. We won’t ever know because the S.S. Norefjell did not attempt to reclaim the body. If they had it could have ended the mystery right there. Instead they left the body floating and reported it days later. The body would have been unrecognizable anyway but with the proper forensic equipment they could have deduces who it belonged to.

Throughout the rest of the sixties, sightings were reported all over the globe. Just like with Elvis’s death, people saw them everywhere. Not in any hugh numbers like Elvis but similar.

P. 234. In 1979, Clint Eastwood’s “Escape From Alcatraz” was released.

My next post will feature a review of the film and detail the inaccuracies between what’s on screen and what really happened.

P. 235. The fact that no bodies were ever retrieved from San Francisco Bay is not significant.

Jolene tells that during 1960 and 1961 there were around forty-seven suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge.

P. 235. Five hit land and their bodies were recovered. Of the other forty-two, seventeen were recovered and twenty-five were not.

Let me repeat that to make sure it syncs in,an amazing twenty-five out of forty-seven bodies were unable to be found.

P. 235. On June 11, 1962, the same day the three Alcatraz cons went missing, witnesses observed thirty-three year old Seymour Webb jump form the Golden Gate Bridge. In their search for Morris and the Anglins, the coast guard also never found Webb.

P. 235. The fact that no evidence was found on land, is more significant.

I would think that if they did make it to shore, they would be extremely cold and hungry. Yet there were no reports of any stolen cars or break-ins immediately following their escape. Those types of actions would leave a perfect trail for the police to follow. The simple fact is that they had no money and no resources. If they did make it, how could they have just disappeared?

P. 238. In other words, Morris and the Anglins entered the bay at exactly the worst moment of that twenty-four hour period, when the biggest volume of water was going out to the ocean at the fastest velocity…

Jolene makes the point that these guys pushed off in their raft when the currents would have been at the harshest of the day. Paddling to Angel Island or to the mainland would already have been exhausting, now add in faster currents just below them.  One can theorize that if they were paddling towards Angel Island and the currents heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge in the opposite direction, they could have paddle for hours and not made any actual progress. It would have been better to use the currents to let it take you to just below the Golden Gate Bridge. On one of the episodes of the “Mythbusters”, this is exactly what the hosts did. They quickly came to the conclusion that trying for Angel Island, although closer, was just too difficult a job to reach. So they used the currents to do half the work for them. They proved that paddling in a handmade raft carrying three people across the bay was possible but only if they used the currents. Allen West has always stated that Angel Island was the intended target, if that’s the case then that may explain why the three were lost and never seen again.

P. 239. Based on the evidence, the most likely scenario goes something like this: somewhere, maybe even close to the island, the raft begins to sink. It is unknown if the three men had their shoes on, but if they did, their shoes would have immediately filled with water and pulled them down. It’s unknown if they were wearing their navy pier coats, but if they were, the woolen jackets would have quickly become lead weights. It’s also unknown if they were forced to quickly put on their life jackets, fumbling to inflate them while thrashing around in extremely cold water, all while drifting in an direction that lead them to the ocean.

It is known that once they were bobbing around in water that was between forty-eight and fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit, that they could last only one to two hours before losing consciousness. The cold would have an immediate numbing effect. Interestingly, thrashing around trying to build up body heat, a natural inclination, would have had the opposite effect of expending heat.

In the immediate aftermath of the escape it was announced that Alcatraz would close. It was simply too costly to operate. With the latest escape attempt it only highlighted the budget cutbacks that were being forced upon them. It all resulted in fewer guards, fewer shifts and somewhat relaxed rules.

P. 244. No one was faulted or punished for allowing blankets to be hung around the top of the block for almost six weeks.  Since the blankets were never revealed in official reports, no one could be blamed.

I guess it was hard to single any one individual since they were all an accomplices in this. They simply saw the blankets hanging their and ignored them. Embarrassing for sure but they should not have been left out of the official report. After all they were a key ingredient to the escape.

Glenn May died under mysterious circumstances. Some of the evidence in the escape pointed directly at him, electric drill for example. West never ratted him out but if must have been obvious to the guards. Many think that prison guards took out their embarrassment on poor Glenn May. Nothing could really be proofed one one way or another though. Basically Glenn died a year later, due to anorexia nervosa, at the age of forty-four. I have no idea how common it is for a forty year old man to suddenly develop anorexia but apparently that was the case. Did the guards have anything to do with that? Seems like an unusual form of torture if that was the case but I doubt the guards had anything to do with it. They were being sent packing along with the inmates with the closing of the prison. At most they could have made Glenn feel guilty by constantly arousing suspicion on him.

P. 250. Few believed that West couldn’t get out of his cell that night.

Most officials and even the warden branded him a coward. They reckoned that he simply chickened out. That underneath all that posturing was a scared individual. Those feelings about West continued to be passed down throughout the years. So nearly fifteen years later, when Hollywood had a desire to tell the story of escape they turned West into a joke. They renamed his character Charlie Butts and portrayed him as a idiot who was just a follower.

Here we are, thirty-two years after that film, “Escape From Alcatraz” had come out. Nearly forty-nine years after the escape attempt itself. With new books like Jolene’s, “Breaking the Rock”, shows like “Mythbusters” and “The Real Story”, the story of these four men continues to live on. It is rumored that J.J. (mystery box) Abrams is even currently developing a prime time tv show about these men who escaped. I can not wait for that.

As the years roll on and more and more information about the escape attempt becomes more well known, I believe Allen West may have the last laugh. He helped plan and execute it, yet he was the only one to survive. He had bragging rights for the rest of his life. And it was a brilliant plan.

P. 251. He had broken the rock.


 

Written by Mr. Lake

March 23, 2011 at 8:05 am