If the poet Emily Dickinson had seen The Shawshank Redemption, she’d have written about Andy Dufresne. He’s the wrongly accused man who endures 20 long years behind the grey walls of a formidable and storied prison in Maine.
He doesn’t just endure, he transcends. Because there are, in his words, “places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, and something inside each us that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch, that’s yours.”
What is it about Shawshank that won’t let go of us?
For one thing, there’s an alchemy in the actors who came together for this movie, starting with Morgan Freeman, who has never gotten his due as America’s Laurence Oliver. No one else has his blend of gravitas and humility. He’s able to convey the best of us, and the best in us. Tim Robbins took great care with the Andy we’ve come to know. Rather than dominate the screen, he allows us to see the characters interact with and around him, and the story move through him.
Andy’s inner life is a bit of a mystery. As he acknowledges, he is “a hard man to know. Like a closed book.” But we have Red to chart his journey.
“He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world. Like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place. Yeah, I think it would be fair to say I liked Andy from the start.”
I read that the studio tried to cast Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford as Andy and Red, respectively. The original Red from Stephen King’s novella was a middle-aged Irishman. Both are fine actors. But that would have been a Tom Cruise Movie, and maybe not a very good one. And we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.
The supporting roles are great throughout – James Whitmore, Gil Bellows, William Sadler, Mark Rolston. In particular, I’ve always been astonished at Clancy Brown’s ability to play a sadistic monster. He is, in truth, a nice Ohio boy, from an accomplished family. As a young reporter, I interviewed his father Clarence, a candidate for governor. Yet, there he is, spot-on as the raging, violent and foul-mouthed Captain Hadley.
Bob Gunton’s Warden Samuel Norton deserves a special category, for stone-cold evil. You do know what I mean, don’t you? Or am I being OBTUSE?
Andy’s not spared any of the horrors of prison. We watch, through Red, and we think he may break. But he goes on, clinging quietly to hope.
People find all sorts of messages in Shawshank. About friendship, loyalty, faith. I once worked with a man who was legendary for his perseverance. If he decided he deserved a raise, or a proper office with a door instead of a cubicle, he was relentless. He would write memos to his boss, call HR, arrange meetings with whomever he thought could further his cause, up to and exceeding the point at which humorless people in authority, people who could do him harm, would become seriously annoyed.
One day I asked him why. He smiled and spoke of Andy Dufresne’s letter-writing campaign to get new books for the Shawshank Prison Library. For six years, Andy writes weekly to the Maine State Senate to request funding, and after hundreds of letters are ignored, one is not. My friend invoked this parable as if quoting scripture.
I recall the seemingly uneventful day when a memo landed in my colleague’s in-box, granting permission for a long-sought-after training conference. To my amazement, the hardest screw ever to manage a budget had shaken loose $250 for my friend to attend a seminar. Our hearts soared.
At the end of the day, I think the central message of Shawshank is that it’s not angry defiance that defeats oppression. It is the ability to keep our dignity, and our sense of self, intact. A point made as Andy, locked in the warden’s office, cues up Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
“I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”
The movie has meaning that crosses boundaries. For some reason, the Brits dearly love it. In a survey by the BBC, Shawshank ranked number one in England as All-Time Favorite Movie. Earlier this summer there were news reports about a storm splitting the actual oak tree where Andy leaves his message for Red. That big tree “right out of a Robert Frost poem,” under which one might find “a rock that has no earthly business in a Maine hayfield.” The most complete account of this event I found online from the U.K., in The Guardian newspaper.
You can still go see the tree, of course. It’s among a dozen filming sites on something called The Shawshank Trail, put together by the local visitor’s bureau in Mansfield, Ohio. Much of the movie was shot there, the principal scenes at the old Ohio State Reformatory.
I grew up in this neck of the woods. Mansfield was the next town over. It was where you’d drive if you wanted to see a movie other than the one feature playing at our solitary theater.
The Bissman Building downtown stood in for the hotel where Brooks, the lifer and gentle prison librarian, tries and fails at life after Shawshank. The thrift store on Orange Street served as the station where Red nervously buys a ticket for a Trailways bus bound for Ft. Hancock, Texas. If you get hungry, stop by Ed Pickens’ Cafe on Main for a delicious Shawshankwich.
In one sense, the story chronicles two friends in a 20-year debate on the nature and value of hope. Red has come to fear hope as insidious, dangerous. For Andy, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Red’s transformation seems to take only after Andy has gone.
“I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright and when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice, but still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”
People use the word “icon” to describe everything from reality shows to brands of mayonnaise. But Shawshank has become something far beyond the vision and talent of those who created it. Like anything that’s truly important to us, we, not others, assign the meaning.
While I can report how this movie touches others, I have not been able to find a way to describe my own feelings each time I see it. But they’re somewhere in Red’s words at the end, in a simple man’s dreams of freedom and belonging.
“I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”
This essay originally written for my friend Ree Drummond’s food-lifestyle-entertainment website, ThePioneerWoman.com – Check out her television show on The Food Network – http://www.foodnetwork.com/ree-drummond/