Who would have thought that the most beloved film of the last 20 years would be the story of a man ‘who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side’? That’s a quote from Morgan Freeman’s character Ellis ‘Red’ Redding, in The Shawshank Redemption, speaking of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins. The film was written and directed by Frank Darabont from Stephen King’s 1982 novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. (Warning: spoilers ahead). The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 1994 and opened soon after, earning a modest  $US28 million, which deepens the mystery. How did a film that nobody saw when it opened get to number one on IMDb’s list of the top 250 films?

The answer, in no order of importance, might be Ted Turner, home video and God. Turner needed product for his movie channel so he bought the company that produced The Shawshank Redemption, Castle Rock Entertainment, for its library. The movie then had a second life on cable TV, in high rotation. The video release extended a growing legion of American fans. By 1999, it was already recognised as a phenomenon. In effect, it became a hit through the back door, just like Andy Dufresne’s escape through the sewer pipe of the Shawshank correctional facility.

These are technical explanations of how people came to see it. They do not explain its popularity. Many films have flopped at the box office and become classics later. The process is like geology – one of Andy Dufresne’s hobbies. ‘Geology is the study of pressure and time’, says Red, contemplating Andy’s methodical efforts to dig a hole in his prison wall over 19 years. But time will not make a bad movie great: there has to be some greatness in the first place. That’s what interests me about Shawshank.

Can we identify the elements that took the film to number one on IMDb? Certainly not, but here goes. First the obvious ones: the movie is about hope, and people can always use that. The story has a long arc, another big attraction. It goes from very low to very high, like a 19th Century French or Russian novel. Andy is sexually assaulted on many occasions by the so-called ‘bull queer’ group of inmates; he is frequently hospitalised and sent to solitary confinement, but he turns misfortune into gain. He becomes a winner, again. Before his conviction for the murder of his wife and her lover, he was a successful banker. He uses those skills to ingratiate himself with the prison warden, played by Bob Gunton, and the staff. He does their taxes, provides financial advice, makes the warden rich. He makes himself indispensable, in fact. Andy’s rise is like the Great American Dream of financial success – but within prison walls.

Like a lot of Stephen King’s stories, and unlike a lot of movies, we’re not sure where he’s taking us. The themes develop slowly. The Green Mile, another prison story by Stephen King that was adapted by Frank Darabont, does the same thing over a longer running time. Shawshank, at 142 minutes, never feels long because the script is built on ‘discipline and the Bible’. The discipline is in the story’s hardened steel structure: not a moment wasted. Religion provides the meaning. The warden gives each new man a Bible. ‘Put your trust in the Lord. Your ass belongs to me.’

Religious symbolism is built into the very walls of the prison. Stephen King says he chooses to believe in God, but this story tells us he dislikes some of God’s representatives on earth. The prison is a microcosm of the world, with its own supreme being. Warden Norton (Gunton) is even more vicious than the ‘bull queers’. He spouts from the Good Book as he conspires to stop Andy’s release. If Dufresne is a Christ figure, persecuted for 19 years, Norton is his Pontius Pilate. The escape through the sewer is Andy’s resurrection, followed by a cleansing baptism in the river and the rain, when he emerges from the pipe. The warden rushes to Andy’s cell, thinking he is dead. Instead, the cell is empty, like Christ’s tomb. There is only the hole, where the ‘stone’ used to be.

Is the religion part of its popularity? Undoubtedly, but spirituality might be a better word, given that the film is so firmly anti-religion. The Jesus story-form remains one of the most powerful in movies. Spartacus is a Jesus film, complete with crucifixions. E.T. is a Jesus film, complete with resurrection; Superman is one big Jesus fantasy in tights. In Shawshank, Red and his cohort are the disciples, left behind to talk about the things Andy taught them – the importance of books, the beauty of Mozart, the power of hope.

Like Star Wars, Shawshank repackaged its religion in a new(ish) form for a new generation – and they’re the ones voting for it on IMDb. It condemns the fake man of God and offers a new one, who doesn’t die. He escapes to Mexico – the place where Americans fantasise about being free of their own society’s constraints. The redemption of the title is Red’s, not Andy’s. Red learns to hope, and to speak the truth to the parole board. Great escape movies are always popular. Steve McQueen made a specialty of them. This one offers earthly salvation as the ultimate form of escape, and maybe that is what audiences love. No waiting required.