The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best modern films made. Set in 1940’s America it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a gentle, quietly spoken banker who is falsely convicted of his wife’s murder and sent to prison. The prison is governed by the harsh and uncompromising Warden Norton. Life inside is even harsher. Red, a life prisoner who befriends Andy, puts it like this:
“The first night’s the toughest, no doubt about it. They march you in naked as the day you were born, skin burning and half blind from that delousing s__t they throw on you, and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home…that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
And so Andy is subjected to the harsh realities of prison life, including repeated sexual abuse at the hands of some guards.
Yet he’s also very intelligent. Andy is co-opted by the warden to handle his accounts, including monies gained through corrupt and illegal activities. He develops careful and elaborate schemes to launder the money. And in return Andy is able to get some concessions for himself and the other prisoners – a library and basic educational services, a gramophone, beer while on a prison chain gang. These concessions are like little tastes of heaven. When Red hears an Italian opera on Andy’s gramophone he says:
“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 better left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was as if some beautiful bird had 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.”
Unlike the other prisoner Andy retains a sense of hope, hope that life can be more than the hellhole of prison, hope that he can one day be released and live again. When he hears Red playing his harmonica Andy comments
“Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget. Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a – there’s a – there’s something inside that’s yours, that they can’t touch.”
Then one day, two decades after he enters prison, Andy is gone. It turns out that for those two decades hope has driven him on as he has painstakingly carved out a tunnel, hidden behind a Rita Hayworth poster on his wall. No one knew about it, but with his tunnel complete Andy crawls though the earth, through the stinkhole of the sewer to freedom. He’s liberated and free.
Andy now goes to the bank that held the false accounts he’s set up for the warden. Nobody has ever met the fictitious account holder, Peter Stevens, before. But Andy has been preparing for this for a long time. He has the required ID’s and the matching signature. Andy becomes Peter Stevens and withdraws all the warden’s corrupt money. And then he anonymously reveals Norton’s corruption to see Norton’s harsh fist removed from the prison.
But one thing remains. Andy’s good friend Red. Red is finally parolled but struggles to cope with the changed world outside. He longs to return to the world he knows – prison. He thinks of ways to break his parole, when he remembers a conversation he once had with Andy, a secret hiding place in the wall of a windblown field. Red goes there, finds a box with an envelope in it that says “Red” on the outside. Red opens the envelope and reads a letter from Andy:
“Dear Red. If you’re reading this, you’ve gotten out. And if you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don’t you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I’ll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend. Andy.”
Red does remember the town they’d spoken of, and has in his hand $1000 Andy left for him. He sets off to find his friend, telling us
“I find I am 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 does make it. The film closes with Red and Andy reunited by the sea. And the message rings loud and clear: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”