Political Film Society - Newsletter #61 - December 15, 1999

December 15, 1999


Only one film provoked the British public to repeal the death penalty -- 5 Rillington Place (1971). Several films have tried to shake up the American public in a similar manner, most recently Dead Man Walking (1996) and True Crime (1999). Now director Frank Darabont ups the ante in The Green Mile, based on the novel by Stephen King. The setting is the death row of Coal Mountain Prison in Louisiana during 1935; the supervisor, Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks), has several assistants. The floor of the aisle between the cells is painted green, so the last walk of those condemned to death, from their cell to the room with the electric chair, is known as the "green mile." Edgecomb's philosophy is to ensure that the last days or years of the men on death row are as calm and even as happy as possible. Only two characters in the film are portrayed as malicious -- Percy Wetmore (played by Doug Hutchison), who has used political connections to work on death row, and William "Wild Bill" Wharton (played by Sam Rockwell), a psychopathic killer. All the rest in the film are portrayed as sensitive human beings. For example, Edgecomb has nonspecific urethritis, and men in the audience who have had this malady may notably wince as he urinates "razor blades." The wife of the prison warden, Hal Moores, (played by James Cromwell) has an inoperable brain tumor. To humanize the victims, we follow their idiosyncrasies. Eduard Delacroix (played by Michael Jeter) revels in finding Mr. Jingles, a mouse that can fetch a threadless spool. John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) is a 315-pount giant whose gentleness belies his murder conviction, but he has a special gift -- the power to heal. Because Duncan heals Edgecomb's urethritis and restores to life Mr. Jingles after Wetmore cruelly steps on the pet mouse, Edgecomb arranges to have Coffey heal the prison warden's wife. In due course we learn that Coffey was framed for a murder actually committed by Wharton. On three occasions we see the procedure involved in administering death by electrocution, a witnessed event in which certain words are spoken, restraints are attached to the victim, and levers are pulled.

Although the execution of Arlen Bitterbuck (a Native American played by Graham Greene) is disgusting enough, Wetmore insists on handling the execution of Delacroix; in so doing, he deliberately refuses to place the customary wet sponge on his head to ensure immediate contact between the electricity and the brain, and what we see is so horrifying that anyone who can bear to watch the long spectacle of electric volts and fire would surely want to write their governor to commute every planned execution until the barbaric practice ceases. The third execution is of Coffey. Knowing that he is innocent of the crime, he has something to say when asked for final words. It is at this point that we grasp the analogy of the quintessential victim of the death penalty of all time -- someone who performed miracles, who was condemned of something that he did not do, and who forgave those whose interpersonal relations are based on hate rather than love. While the death row prison guards carry out their assignment to electrocute Coffey, tears fall on more than one cheek. Afterward, Wetmore is committed to a mental institution, and the rest of the death row employees transfer to other prison assignments. As the most eloquent plea to end the death penalty yet filmed, the Political Film Society has nominated The Green Mile for an award for meritoriously raising political consciousness of the need to advance human rights. MH

Charles R. Dannehl of Bradley University, the newest member of the Political Film Society, has provided a course syllabus. His course syllabus is the ninth in the Syllabus Series. Click here to purchase the syllabus.

DEMOCRACY: East of Hope Street, Fight Club, The Insider, Naturally Native, Three Kings
Bastards, Cabaret Balkan, East of Hope Street, The Insider, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero,
Three Kings, Three Seasons
The General's Daughter, The Green Mile, Hard, Naturally Native, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, Three Seasons, Xiu Xiu
PEACE: Cabaret Balkan, Earth, Light It Up, One Man's Hero, Three Kings, West Beirut