John Bunyan (1628 – 88) was imprisoned from 1660 to 1672. In prison he had sufficient freedom to write and to preach to the prisoners, activities which allowed him to work out a full articulation of the way to salvation, and to express those ideas most fully in his famous allegory, ‘Pilgrims Progress’, published six years after his release. This puts me in mind of Fontaine in A Man Escaped, who finds in prison the time to work out his escape, in effect to work out his salvation from damnation (remember the French title, Un Condamné à mort s’est échappé). The film links Catholic Bresson to Protestant asceticism, and also to Paul Schrader’s Calvinist streak: his conclusion in American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and The Walker that individual humans are the great mystery, utterly alone when faced with divine judgement.
But Bunyan’s story has another link to A Man Escaped. A formative event in Bunyan’s life was an incident in the English Civil War when a comrade of his died while serving in his place. This is a Dostoevsky moment (due to be shot as a revolutionary in 1849, he is reprieved at the very last moment, and survives to write his great stories of redemption), and also a Fontaine moment: when Orsini’s attempt at escape fails, a fellow prisoner remarks to Fontaine: ‘Orsini died that you might succeed.’ (It also links to the role of Barabbas in the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus is substituted for Barabbas on the Cross: once released what is Barabbas to do with his life? What happens to him after his release is the subject of Pär Lagerkvist’s novel (1950) and of the film adaptations by Alf Sjöberg in 1953 in Sweden, and that produced by Dino de Laurentiis, written by Christopher Fry and directed by Richard Fleischer (1962) in Hollywood on Tiber -- which is terrific in parts, less so in others.)
Is there even an autobiographical idea in A Man Escaped? Following the fall of France in 1940, Bresson was imprisoned by the Germans for several months. Did this brush with prison, with the despair that loss of freedom brings, mean that when he was released he found a new dtermination to express his ideas?