At the beginning of the film, through the use of images and limited narration we learn the dreary life on “The Rock.” We learn how prisons dehumanize their inmates and, according to the sadistic warden, why Alcatraz is, “unlike any other prison in the United States.” There is no form of rehabilitation. All that exists is the monotony and discipline of a prisoner’s life.
Yet out of this dreary, dreaded hole from which no man escapes comes a symbol of hope: a flower. We are first exposed to this flower in the yard during the prisoner’s sole hour of recreation each week. Doc, a venerable, old felon, paints a self-portrait with a flower in his breast pocket. Upon probing by Morris, we learn that it is a metaphor for his spirit. While the warden can take away all of his rights, the one thing they cannot take away from him is his flower. As long as he has his flower, his will to live, and, to some extent, to escape, will continue. To some, this symbolizes the never-ending struggle to escape from the island. Yet, to all, it provides them with a symbol of hope that they too will not wilt under the severity of the penal system.
As the film progresses, we learn that Doc’s flower is watered by his passion for painting. As he puts it, “painting is all I have.” In the film’s most dramatic scene, Doc’s spirit is broken. The warden is offended by a portrait Doc made of him and orders his painting privileges revoked. In a cruel twist of fate, Alcatraz succeeded in taking the only thing Doc had and he retaliated by chopping off his fingers.
After the woodshop fiasco, Morris picks up Doc’s fingers, his flower, and, most importantly, Doc’s cause. It is here that he begins to plot his escape. While Doc’s spirit may be broken, Morris’s is just beginning to build in strength. Unlike Doc, whose will to live was symbolized by the flower, to Morris, the flower expresses his intent to be the first to escape from the island.
At the end of the film, as the search is occurring, the warden discovers a yellow chrysanthemum on Angel Island. We learn that this flower does not grow on the island and remember that part of Morris’s plan involved confusing the authorities by swimming to Angle Island rather than to San Francisco. While the filmmakers do not turn fact into Hollywood fiction, the flower serves as a symbolic suggestion that they made it. However, the result of their escape is left open to interpretation and the audience is left with unresolved issues.