On 21st March it will have been 50 years since that well-known prison, immortalised in numerous films and television shows, shut its doors in 1963. British Pathé covered the news in the film “Everybody Out!” which claims to reveal the interior of Alcatraz “for the first and last time” – though this seems to be an exaggeration since the interior features in earlier Pathé clips as well! In the minute-long clip, we see the last remaining convicts moved to other prisons (view the newsreel here). A film from the year before, “Alcatraz Replaced“, announces the decision to close the prison and also shows its replacement, called “Marion”, under construction.
As the films explain, Alcatraz was originally an army fort. It was therefore an ideal location for an “escape-proof prison for America’s worst criminals”. It closed due to lack of space for the rising US prison population.
But “escape-proof” wasn’t an entirely accurate description for the prison. Break-out attempts at Alcatraz were numerous (14 in total during the island’s 30 year history as a state penitentiary) and three of them feature in films within the British Pathé archive. The first escape film seemingly dates from 1938, though it describes events of the year before, and warns the American public to be on the lookout for inmates Ralph Row and Ted Cole, who apparently succeeded in breaking out, though it is now presumed that they perished in the attempt.
The second film, from 1946, covers a dramatic gun battle between prison guards, marines and the prisoners. Some of the grenade explosions are caught on camera by newsreel staff eager to ignore the danger for the sake of some close-ups. The 44-hour battle left two guards and three convicts dead. Two other inmates were later executed.
The final film, “Daring Escape” (1962), features an image of a lifelike dummy in one of the prison beds used by the escapees to fool the guards. The fugitives were never caught, if indeed they survived the attempt. The events might be familiar, because they formed the basis of the 1972 Clint Eastwood film, Escape From Alcatraz.
Today, Alcatraz is a museum which, given its history, must be worth a visit if you are ever in San Francisco.
View British Pathé’s Alcatraz collection here.