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The Green Mile

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Written in 1996 by Stephen King, and adapted into a film of the same name in 1999 by director Frank Darabont, The Green Mile, told in flashback format, tells the story of a death row corrections officer’s life, and the supernatural events he witnesses in the final execution of his career. This essay will take a structuralist approach to analyze a man’s inner conflicts in the face of a moral dilemma when he discovers that one of his charges is not only innocent, but just may be an angel sent by God.

The Green Mile is an epic prison film based on the fictional novels (a series of six books) by Stephen King. Frank Darabont adapted these novels into a screenplay of the same name. The movie is Darabont’s first film after producing The Shawshank Redemption. Shawshank was also based on a Stephen King novel about a prison, and the friendship formed between a black and white man, but it did not have the spiritual or supernatural undertone that The Green Mile does. The film was nominated in 1999 for Academy Awards for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Michael Clarke Duncan); Best Picture; Best Sound Mixing; and Best Adapted Screenplay (Frank Darabont). The Green Mile focuses on a gentle giant, death row inmate John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), “like the drink, only not spelled the same,” and his relationship with Captain Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks).

Stephen King was excited when Darabont mentioned he wanted Hanks in the role of Paul, as he had already envisioned him in the role. The cast includes a list of other Hollywood notables including character actors David Morse (Brutus “Brutal” Howell), Barry Pepper (Dean Stanton); Jeffrey DeMunn (Harry Terwilliger); Doug Hutchison (Percy Wetmore); Sam Rockwell (William ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton); and wild card actors James Cromwell (Warden Hal Moores) and his wife, Patricia Clarkson (Melinda Moores). Morse, who had never heard of the script until the role was offered to him, was in tears by the time he came to the end of it. Darabont always wanted Cromwell in the role of the Warden, and after being moved by the reading of the script, Cromwell readily agreed to take the part. Duncan gives credit to his role in the film to Bruce Willis, who introduced him to Darabont after hearing of the open call for the role of John Coffey. These actors take on their roles with the grace of a swan.

The actors in The Green Mile do not just pretend to be their characters they become their characters. “On its face, what an actor does is simple: act. That is, he pretends to be someone else—the character he or she is playing in the movie” (Goodykoontz & Jacobs, 2011, p. 6). If not for the fact that you were watching a movie, you would swear that the relationships… the friendships formed between the guards and Coffey (especially Edgecomb’s) was real. The film receives its’ power from the performances given by Paul (Hanks), John Coffey (Duncan), Percy (Hutchison) and ‘Wild Bill’ (Rockwell). Their performances are the equivalent of good versus evil or darkness versus light. The good in the protagonists, Hanks and Duncan, do battle with the pure evil in the antagonists Hutchinson and Rockwell. Their performances provide a perfect balance against the other. Yet, if either overshadowed the other, the film would not have felt as balanced as it did. Their performances are perfect.

So believable are the subtle little nuances that the performers could have been caricatures. The actors, both individually and as a group, portray stories of personal growth and enlightenment throughout this drama. The Green Mile falls into the genre of a drama. “Dramas are serious, plot-driven presentations, portraying realistic characters, settings, life situations, and stories involving intense character development and interaction” (Dirks, 2014). However, The Green Mile can also be encapsulated into sub-genres including a tragedy, melodrama, and even science fiction. A tragedy is defined as, “a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror.” A melodrama is defined as “a work (as a movie or play) characterized by extravagant theatricality and by the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization” (Merriam-Webster, 2014).

Although some people may not consider The Green Mile to be a science-fiction film, portions of the movie definitely fall into that category. Sci-fi films are often quasi-scientific, visionary and imaginative- complete with … unknown and unknowable forces…” (Dirks, 2014). The unknown force in this film is John Coffey himself, and the supernatural powers he possesses. Each of these subgenres assists in capturing the complexity of the relationship between Paul and John. The Green Mile can also be read as a commentary on the United States stance on the death penalty. “The United States is the only country in the Western industrialized world that still uses the death penalty” (Campaign to End the Death Penatly, 2014). It is questionable whether a black man in Louisiana in the 1930s, convicted of the rape and murder of two small white girls, would be treated with such hospitality. In 82% of the studies [reviewed], race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 1990).

The mystical aura about Coffey makes the viewer go along with it. The film delivers several sequences that are emotionally powerful. A particularly gruesome one is the scene in which Percy, has sabotaged the execution of Del, unbeknownst to the other guards. The clip, ‘The Most Disturbing Execution Ever,’ (YouTube, 2011), shows what can happen when an execution goes awry. It also provides the macabre details of the death chamber, and shows the process by which a person is executed. Not only does the film encompass death, but also in the midst of the film, it offers a little comic relief. Harry Dean Stanton provides a diverting cameo when he stands-in at an execution dress rehearsal in the electric chair. In one of the most subdued and melancholy clips, the mise-en-scene of The Green Mile is captured better than anywhere else in the film. The clip ‘The Execution,’ (YouTube, 2011) encompasses the setting, costumes, actors, lighting, special effects, camera angles, shots, and movement. Other than the uniforms of the guards, costumes do not play a major role in this film.

The storytelling and cinematography in this film feeds into the intensity of it. This is an exceptional and complex story with multiple layers to it. If anyone of those layers were removed, the mood and even the framework of the film would be weakened. The film is hypnotic. It is so entrancing so mesmerizing and riveting, the viewer disregards the fact that the movie is three hours long. The most important portion of the setting in this film is ‘E’ block (a.k.a. the green mile) itself. Most of the movie is filmed on the mile and in the death chamber. Cinematographer David Tattersall uses this true to life setting, as well as a plethora of viewpoints, sounds, music, and lighting, to make the scenes poignant and memorable. The cinematography was also exceedingly well done. It is difficult to film most of the mise en scène on one set. Furthermore, finding ways to make the scene look fresh with each take is even tougher. The fact that Tattersall accomplishes this feat is equivalent to a miracle in itself.

The movie is filmed in Louisiana during the Depression. Ironically, the location of the filming, the old Tennessee State Prison, closed in 1992 due to inmates and former prisoners filing a class action lawsuit (Grubbs v. Bradley). A Federal injunction against the Department of Corrections prevented the prison from ever being used as a prison again due to atrocious conditions, riots and murders that occurred there. There are more than a few stories of hauntings that go on at the prison, so much so that Tennessee does not ‘technically’ acknowledge the presence of its’ location. The ‘death’ of the prison, ties into the main theme of the movie, which is death itself. Death first reveals itself in the clip ‘Dead Man Walking,’ (YouTube) where John Coffey is first introduced into the movie. Officer Wetmore parades Coffey from the transport van while yelling out, “Dead man, we got a dead man walking here.” This scene follows Coffey as he begins what will be his final journey, down the green mile to the death row housing unit. Another fine example of this deathly cinematography can be found in the clip ‘Miracle Worker,’ (YouTube, 2011).

This scene encompasses it all – lighting, music, sounds, special effects, camera angles. Melinda’s frail, ravaged body is the epitome of death, a theme rampant throughout the film. Her slow metamorphosis back to the land of the living as Coffey “takes it back” is a cinematic dance between death and life… with life winning this round. Even Captain Paul himself, who as he says was ‘infected with life’ by Coffey, dances a duo with death as he retells the story. Seen through the memories of Paul Edgecomb, the movie is told in flashback format. It makes no haste to get to the supernatural powers of Coffey, but instead it provides the audience the experience of touring the mile, and delivers the opportunity to get to know and create relationships with the guards and the inmates on the mile. It begins in the summer of 1930, which was not a good one for Paul.

Not only is he suffering from a painful, almost debilitating urinary tract infection, he also has to suffer the behavior of one of his guards Percy Wetmore, (who is well-connected as his aunt is the governor’s wife), a stuck-up, obstinate, and at times, vicious person, that wants “to see one cook up close.” Paul thinks, “The man is mean, careless and stupid–that’s a bad combination in a place like this.” Paul considers it his duty to regulate a calm and decent atmosphere in which to prepare these men for death. When new prisoner, John Coffey arrives, things are never the same. Coffey, a massive seven-foot, black inmate looms over all the guards in the establishing shot. In the ‘Dead Man Walking’ scene (YouTube, 2008), Coffey enters on a long shot, which provides a comparison of size and height of Coffey to the guards as he walks the mile for the first time with Officer Percy Wetmore. His massiveness is almost comical in comparison to guard Wetmore.

However, right from the start, you get the impression that Coffey is not what he is made out to be. Unlike a man with something to hide, he is straightforward when he extends his hand to shake the guard’s hand; furthermore, this gargantuan of a man is afraid of the dark. This implicit content lets the viewer know that Coffey is no murderer. The Green Mile also contains many other literary elements. When examined, these elements reveal symbolism, irony, and metaphors. The film’s title is a direct reference to the prisons ‘E’ block, as the floors that lead from the cells to the site of the execution chamber are olive green in color. This color is traditionally the color of peace and has a strong correspondence with safety. If a sense of peace is need anywhere, the mile is one of them. This is the last walk the inmates must take before their execution. The inmates need that serenity as they prepare to meet their maker. Captain Paul Edgecomb even goes so far to say that, “We should think of this place like an intensive care ward of a hospital.”

Why would Paul make that comparison? “Intensive care units (ICU) are places in the hospital where the most seriously ill patients are cared for by specially trained staff” (ATS, 2014). Most inmates that are on death row have some form of mental illness. “Research has shown that nearly all Death Row inmates suffer from brain damage due to illness or trauma, while a vast number have also experienced histories of severe physical and/or sexual abuse” (Death Penalty Focus, 2014). As such, inmates awaiting execution on death row are considered seriously ill (mentally), and thus must be handled by specially trained staff. In the movie, inmates sit on death row only days prior to their scheduled execution. In the real world, that is not the case. In the United States, the time between sentencing and execution was calculated in days or weeks when the constitution was first written. Today, due to court appeals, a typical inmate spends ten plus years awaiting his/her execution.

This gives the inmates ample time to apologize to this they have wronged and make peace with their maker. When examined on an even deeper level, there are a few allegories of Jesus Christ, or whatever savior is pertinent to the viewing audience, portrayed through Coffey’s character. This gentle giant possesses the powers of healing much like that of Christ. As Paul’s awareness of these gifts progresses, the allegory continues to unveil and develops meaningfully throughout the plot of the film. For example, when Paul reads the transcripts from Coffey’s case, he cries out, “Jesus!” “Jesus!” In the scene where Coffey releases the virus into guard Wetmore, Brutal calls out “Jesus.” The scars Coffey bares parallel the lashes Jesus received from Pontius Pilate before His crucifixion. Coffey’s phenomenal abilities to heal the sick, cure the lame, and see the true desires in the hearts of others are revealed, mirror the traits that are spoken of Jesus Christ.

From the exploding light bulbs, to the resurrections of Melinda and Mr. Jingles, the ‘Christ” like symbolism repeats itself, right down to the execution (or should you say crucifixion) of John Coffey. A review of the film by Roger Ebert states, “… we are reminded of another execution some 2,000 years ago” (Roger Ebert.com, 1999). The clip, ‘The Execution,’ brings the story of Paul’s dilemma to the end. From a structuralist approach, the aforementioned symbolisms are bountiful in the film. While the root of this story is not very unique, the way the individuals are drawn and the storyline unfolds is quite fascinating. Captain Paul Edgecomb was a man trying to be and do his best at his job. As for his dilemma, he comes to the realization that although it is his job to oversee and conduct executions on the mile, all actions have consequences, and he will someday have to answer for his.

For the first time in his life, Paul is afraid of actually going to hell because of his actions. Coffey’s stay on the mile has had a profound effect not only on Paul, but also upon the other inmates and guards. Paul, now sure that Coffey is an innocent man after bearing witness to the miracles he performs, considers setting Coffey free. In one of their final conversations, Paul asks Coffey, “On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God and He asks me why did I kill one of His true miracles… what and am I going to say… that it was my job?” “You tell God, the Father, it was a kindness you done,” Coffey replies. With those simple words, Paul’s inner conflicts and moral dilemma, much like the thieves on the cross either side of Jesus, was solved.

References
ATS. (2014, 05 10). Retrieved from American Thoracic Society: Campaign to End the Death Penatly. (2014, 05 09). Retrieved from nodeathpenalty.org: http://www.nodeathpenalty.org/get-the-facts/six-reasons-oppose-death-penalty Death Penalty Focus. (2014, 05 10). Retrieved from Death Penalty Focus: Dirks, T. (2014, 05 09). Filmsite. Retrieved from Filmsite: http://www.filmsite.org/genres.html DPIC. (n.d.). Retrieved from Death Penalty Information Center: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/time-death-row Goodykoontz, B., & Jacobs, C. (2011). Film: From Watching To Seeing. In B. Goodykoontz, & C. Jacobs, Film: From Watching To Seeing (p. 6). San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc. Merriam-Webster. (2014, 04 25). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster.com: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ Roger Ebert.com. (1999, 12 10). Retrieved from RogerEbert.com: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-green-mile-1999 U.S. Government Accountability Office. (1990, 02). Retrieved from U.S. GAO: http://www.gao.gov/products/GGD-90-57 YouTube. (n.d.). Retrieved from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqzJkTatWiQ YouTube. (2008, 07 18). Retrieved from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqzJkTatWiQ YouTube. (2011, 05 26). Retrieved from YouTUbe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLbS8f9IplI YouTube. (2011, May 26). Retrieved from You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s9RYLabxCg YouTube. (2011, 05 26). Retrieved from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqbb1FCX6wM

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