History Of Alcatraz In Movies And Television

By Bradford Hornsby
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Alcatraz

View dated 1930’s of the Alcatraz island and penitentiary, in the San Francisco Bay. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

It has been 80 years since our infamous little island in the Bay was turned into a Federal Penitentiary. In its 20 years it held some of the most notorious criminals of the era including Al Capone, Robert “Bridman” Stroud, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. After its closure in 1963, The Rock has continued to captivate as a tourist attraction and as a location in film and television.

It makes cameo appearances in just about every film or television show that takes place in the Bay Area with bit parts on The Simpsons, MythBusters, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Book of Eli, The Enforcer, X-Men: The Last Stand, and more. Alcatraz also appears as the location and arguable central character to a few popular and acclaimed films.

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Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

About The Movie: Burt Lancaster portrays convicted murderer Robert Stroud AKA The Birdman. Contrary to the title, Stroud was never permitted to keep pets (birds or not) at Alcatraz. He did at his previous incarceration at Leavenworth Prison. Even with that fact, Lancaster’s excellent (if inaccurate) portrayal of Stroud is worth the watch.

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter

Rotten Tomatoes: 82%

Fun Fact: The cell of Robert Stroud is now in a section of Alcatraz that is off limit to tours do to safety concerns.

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Murder In The First (1994)

About The Movie: Another of the loosely based on reality films that star Alcatraz. Bacon plays inmate Henri Young who is sent to Alcatraz after being convicted of stealing $5. He tries to escape and is place in the Alcatraz “dungeons.” After his release back into general population he stabs a man and is put on trial. His lawyer then argues that the Warden and the dungeons push Young to act. In reality, Young had been convicted multiple times of robbing banks, the infamous dungeons had been closed for years but the trail did really happen.

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman

Fun Fact: The Dungeons underneath Alcatraz do exist but not the way they have been portrayed in popular film. They are dark, damp, and very dangerous – and off limits to the normal visitor. Believe me, you are not missing much unless you like feeling claustrophobic.

Rotten Tomatoes: 50%

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The Rock (1996)

About The Movie: Features a rogue group of US military who hold San Francisco hostage with deadly chemical weapons. FBI agent and scientist (Cage) is teamed with former prisoner and MI6 agent (Connery) to get onto Alcatraz and disarm the weapons. The movie is pretty over-the-top as any Cage, Connery and Jerry Bruckheimer movie is want to be but still holds a few Connery gems including his iconic “Welcome to the Rock.”

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery, Ed Harris

Rotten Tomatoes: 66%

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Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

About The Movie: The film, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, is a dramatization of Frank Morris’ 1962 attempt to bust himself and two other cons out of The Rock. The three inmates were never found but presumably died from exposure to the Bay and its swift currents.

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom, Jack Thibeau, Fred Ward

Rotten Tomatoes: 95%

Fun Fact: Escape from Alcatraz marked the film debut of Danny Glover.

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