Skip to content

The Shawshank Redemption

September 1, 2015

ShawRWalter Bruggemann: “Hope is a tenacious act of imagination given in dream, oracle, narrative, and song”.Andy plays Mozart in prison; Paul and Silas sing in chains; African American spirituals lament and keen for future glory. Why sing instead of speaking one’s hope?  Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains, in “Life Together”, “our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say, [and] the burden of our song goes far beyond all human words”.

Hope despite the odds – Andy has been wrongly imprisoned and there is no way out, yet he refused to give in to despair. Throughout Andy is sustained by memories of the outside, especially of its music. Instead of lamenting the injustices done to him, both inside and outside prison, he focuses on what cannot be seen and waits for it with patience. Long before he actually breathes the outside air, Andy is free, for he has been freed inside himself. This hope within Andy is also something he seeks to share, through the music of Mozart. It proves to be a costly act, but one he believes is worth paying.

Hypocrisy : The warden preaches the Bible to keep the prisoners in control but by his actions contradicts everything the Word of God is meant to be. Like an arbitrary deity evaluating what constitutes “sin”, the warden determines which convicts receive favors, unpleasant tasks and severe penalties. Notwithstanding his innumerable citations of the Bible, the warden refuses to entertain any general law with a modicum of earthly justice. He becomes rather a law unto  himself by mirroring the behavior of the autocratic Christian God he worships and reveres: arbitrariness, unpredictability, vindictiveness, and cruel, pernicious and uncompromising punish­ment for sinful transgressors. When Andy discovers that there is a witness who can confirm his innocence of the double murder, the warden has the wit­ness murdered and punishes Andy with a month of solitary confinement. And when Andy threatens to stop using his banking acumen to assist the warden in laundering prison funds that are funneled into his own bank account, the war­den adds another month of solitary.

The importance of a name : Near the beginning a man dies and Andy wants to know his name. “He must have a name”. All the way through, names are carved on the prison walls and both Brooks and Red leave their carved names at the boarding house.

Freedom: The film picks up a cinematic tradition in which prison becomes an image of the human condition and explores how human dignity and heroism can transcendthat prison setting. Although few of us will end up in prison ourselves, there canbe plenty of other things which imprison us: a dead-end job, a lingering illness, a the importance of something to hold on to – the little Mexican town on the shores of the big blue Pacific is Andy’s motivation to survive Shawshank.

“get busy living or get busy dying” – Andy chooses the former and survives the ordeal of his imprisonment.

a clear and intensional allusion to the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Oh my holy God.”  Just as Red and others go looking for Andy’s dead body, the disciples went looking for Christ’s. Just as Red and the guards found the cell empty and Andy alive so too did Jesus’ followers.

The entire film is meaningful in light of the gospel.  Andy’s resurrection redeems Red, “the only guilty man in Shawshank.”  In a clear reversal of its prison film genre (think of Cool Hand Luke or Escape from Alcatraz), the Shawshank Redemption depicts prisoners dreading NOT imprisonment, BUT freedom.  And they dread it as they would death itself.  Brooks, for instance, tries to kill Haywood when he finds he’s been paroled and later kills himself because of it. The prisoners of Shawshank are “Institutionalized.”  Freedom for them means only to be empty and alone.

But there is life outside, a point Andy, Shawshank’s only innocent man, wants his fellow prisoners to see.  He offers them rare and extraordinary reminders of the outside world, like a beer on a hot roof, angelic music over the prison’s speakers, and a library, built by breaking down the walls of the prison.  In the process, Andy suffers greatly for these acts.  But its Andy’s ultimate miraculous escape and life on the outside which means hope for Red. Because Andy lives Red will live also.  He waits for Red, working the wood of a fishermen’s boat.  All before a eternal sea.

G.K. Chesterton: Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or quite brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if he will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.

From the Journal of Religion and Film, article “Scripture on the Silver Screen”: Yet another Jesus-figure is Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption. Andy is an innocent man who is baptized into the bleak world of Shawshank prison with a cold shower and a dose of lice powder. With the patience of Job and spurred by hope for a better future, Andy takes twenty years to chisel his way through the prison wall and escapes Shawshank through the sewer system. After the sewer
spews him into the river outside the prison compound, Andy strips off his shirt, stretches out his arms, and gazes upwards, to the accompaniment of a magnificent rainstorm and a majestic soundtrack. After his departure, Andy’s prison friends, like Jesus’ disciples, reminisce about him and draw comfort from his memory. Andy’s best buddy and most faithful disciple, Red, follows in his footsteps after he is finally paroled. Although Andy is not physically present, he saves Red from despair and poverty by providing him with money, a destination, and a purpose. The final scene, in which Red strides across the sandy shores of the Pacific to meet Andy who is hard at work sanding down an old fishing boat, is an eschatological vision. The images of water, boats, white clothing, and the simple life recall the visual representations, in art and film, of Jesus and his
disciples at the Sea of Galilee.

From the Journal for the Renewal of Religion and Theology: In the American prison film, The Shawshank Redemption , corrupt Warden Norton (Bob Gunton) was an obnoxious Bible-thumping Christian who distributed Bibles to new prisoners and claimed: “I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.” The Warden referred to the Bible throughout the film to justify his sadistic brutality of the prisoners and to add an air of pious authority to underpin his ruthlessness. In effect, the Warden had turned the holy word of God into a symbol of oppression and hypocrisy, whilst highlighting his corrupt Christian fundamentalism hidden behind the guise of church-going righteousness. However, at films end, the Warden’s pretentious piousness, moral hypocrisy, and secret financial corruptions were revealed by the long-suffering, innocent inmate, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), who successfully escaped prison by digging a hole through his cell wall using a rock hammer cunningly hidden inside his own hollowed-out Bible. Andy had thus turned his copy of sacred Scripture into a
postmodern symbol of liberation, if somewhat unconventionally packaged and deployed.

Indeed, even deeper theological meaning can be extracted from this Bible scene because the “top page of the carved-out space for the rock hammer is clearly visible to the observant film viewer: it is the title page of the book of Exodus, the biblical story of escape from bondage”. Previously, Andy almost lost his Bible-cum-escape tool when Warden Norton accidentally walked off with it before turning around and giving it back saying: “I’d hate to deprive you of this. Salvation lies within.” That statement was biblically, theologically and literally true, which Andy deliciously acknowledged within his own escape note: “Dear Warden, you were right. Salvation lay within.” Similarly, the American prison film, Escape from Alcatraz , employed a Bible to hide Frank Morris’ (Clint Eastwood’s) material means of escape, thus proffering another de facto symbol of hope and freedom packaged

One reviewer sees the movie as an illustration of the above/below divide that has been a constant theme in western literature since Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The problem with Shawshank’s prisoners and Red in particular is they have become accustomed to prison life. Brook’s parole, in a clear reversal of our expectations, reveals the terror one experiences when faced with the possibility of living life on the outside. But there is life outside, a point that Andy wants his fellow prisoners to see. He provides them beer on the roof, music over the loud speakers, and the library, all in an effort to prepare them for this life. Andy does it not because he is chained as his fellow prisoners but because he is the only prisoner that’s free and or innocent.

The religious connotation of the film, however, does not become fully apparent until Andy escapes from prison. It is in Andy’s cell where we along with Red expect to find Andy dead. But instead of finding death, we find the cell empty and instead of being dead, Andy is alive with a new and powerful life lived on the outside. Andy is Christ. Just as when Red and the Warden go looking for Andy’s dead body in the cell, the disciples likewise went looking for Christ’s. And just as Red found the Cell empty and Andy alive, so the disciples found the tomb empty and Jesus alive.

Just as Christ first miracle is changing water into wine, Andy provides beer on the roof. Just as Christ miracles proclaim the hope found in a life lived in God, Andy’s miracles proclaim the hope that can be theirs.

Shawshank 2WARDEN NORTON: I believe in two things: discipline and the Bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.

ANDY: I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.

WARDEN NORTON: Lord! It’s a miracle! Man up and vanished like a fart in the wind!

RED: Same old sh*t, different day.

RED: 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. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.

ANDY: Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

ANDY: You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?
RED: No.
ANDY: They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory.

RED: I find I’m so excited that 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 a 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.

Red: These prison walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, gets so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized. They send you here for life, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyways.

I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is 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.

Red: I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.

Warden Samuel Norton: Salvation lies within.

Andy Dufresne: I guess it comes down to a simple choice really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

Andy Dufresne: It’s my life. Don’t you understand? IT’S MY LIFE!

Red: There’s not a day goes by I don’t feel regret. Not because I’m in here, or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try and talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone and this old man is all that’s left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It’s just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don’t give a shit.

Andy Dufresne: [in letter to Red] Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Red: [narrating] Forty years I been asking permission to piss. I can’t squeeze a drop without say-so

Red: Prison life consists of routine, and then more routine.

Red: Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.

Andy: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… Haven’t you

ever felt that way about music?

Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.

Andy: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.

Red: Forget?

Andy: Forget that there things in this world not carved out of grey stone. That there’s a small place inside of us they can never lock away, and that place is called hope.

Andy: Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And a good thing never dies.

Warden: Salvation lies within.

“It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage, and made those walls dissolve away. For the briefest of moments, every last man in the bleak Shawshank prison felt free.”

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.


From → Film

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: