Located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island is today one of the main tourist attractions in San Francisco. Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first Europeans to explore the island and named it “Isla de Los Alcatraces,” or “Island of the Pelicans,” for its large pelican colony.
The United States army built a fortress on the island back in 1853, and about 10 years later it became a military prison. In 1907, Alcatraz was decommissioned by the army as a fortification but it remained a military prison.
In 1933, Alcatraz was taken over by the US government and turned into a federal penitentiary. The federal prison housed the worst of the worst inmates from 1934 to 1963, including Al “Scarface” Capone, George R. “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Franklin Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” Arthur “Doe” Barker, Alvin “Creepy” Karpavicz, Sam Richard Shockley, Frank Morris and many others.
It’s been more than 80 years since the island was turned into a Federal Penitentiary. The prison was closed in 1963 by Robert F. Kennedy due to rising costs. Since then it has become a popular tourist attraction and also has attracted Hollywood studios for filming.
Alcatraz was the setting for the 1979 film, Escape from Alcatraz. The film, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, is an adaptation of the 1963 non-fiction book of the same name by J. Campbell Bruce, fictionalizing the only potentially successful escape attempt from the island.
In June 1962, inmates Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and John Anglin made one of the most famous prison escapes in history. They fooled the prison guards by planting dummy heads they’d made out of papier-mâché and human hair from the prison barber shop, and escaped Alcatraz using an inflatable raft. Since that day John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris have never been seen or heard from again.
Clint Eastwood portrays Frank Morris, the bank robber who masterminded the only possibly successful escape from Alcatraz prison. According to Roger Ebert, the actor was perfectly matched to the role.
A year after the true events on which the film was based, Alcatraz was closed. By 1979, the prison had fallen into ruin and had to be rebuilt for the filming of Escape from Alcatraz. Paramount spent a “small” fortune in order to bring it back to its 1962 state.
In 1979, Alcatraz had no water, electricity or telephones. Thousands of gallons of water had to be brought in big barges, producers also had to set up a radio station, telephone, and they even had their own generator over there, to generate electricity; 15 miles of cable was required to connect the island to San Francisco’s electricity.
They also had to paint over the graffiti that had been written on the walls by the Indians who had seized and camped on the island. The graffiti was painted over with water-soluble paint in order not to permanently damage or erase it since it was considered a valuable part of the history of the island by the Parks and Recreation Commission.
All in all, producers paid $500,000 to restore the decaying prison and recreate the cold atmosphere. When filming was over many of the improvements were kept intact.
Escape From Alcatraz debuted in theaters on June 22, 1979. The film was well received by critics and was considered by many as one of the best films of the year.