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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #331: The Green Mile


Stephen King is known around the world for his tales of horror and the supernatural, but every now and then he can write very compelling tales of drama and hope. Two of them are set in a prison and were adapted to the screen by director Frank Darabont. “The Green Mile” (1999) was the second adaptation after “The Shawshank Redemption” and stars the late great Michael Clark Duncan as John Coffey, a giant of a man on death row in 1935 Louisiana. Ironically for a man condemned to die, Coffey has the power to restore life.

This film was a holiday film released in December and it eventually became part of one of my family movie nights. Back in the early 2000s when my family and I were living in Lima, Peru, my dad bought the VHS, I am guessing after he had seen the movie in theatres and liked what he saw. This was right around when I was starting to develop my love affair with cinema, so just seeing that new box was enough to make me excited. I do mean box, because you will recall with a movie 188 minutes long they had to split the movie into two videocassettes. Oh, the good old days of VCRs.

The story is told in flashback by a man (Dan Greer) living in a retirement home. After seeing a movie that brings back painful memories from his past, he decides to share his burden with a fellow resident by telling her about the time in his life when he was a death row correctional officer in 1935. Back then Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) ran what the guards of Cold Mountain Penitentiary called the Green Mile, because of the color of the floor the inmates had to walk before sitting on the electric chair.

Edgecomb runs the place in an orderly fashion along with men he trusts to do their job professionally: Brutus “Brutal” Howell (David Morse), Harry Terwilliger (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Dean Stanton (Barry Pepper). Together they keep watch over men whose days are numbered. Edgecomb demands they behave as though this was not a prison block, but a hospital with terminally ill patients, unless those patients cause trouble.

Three new characters disturb the balance on the Mile. New guard Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) is a sadistic little a-hole, who has no respect for the prisoners or his fellow guards and only got the job because of his connection with the governor. This is only a temporary situation until he gets a cushy desk job at a mental institution. When he mishandles the procedure for an execution, it leads to one of the most disturbing scenes ever shot involving an electric chair.

Then there is prisoner “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell) a felon who causes no end of troubles for the guards, including urinating on Terwiliger. In response, Edgecomb gives permission to Terwiliger to spray Wharton with a fire hose and then lock him up in a dark room while strapped in a straight jacket. You break the rules on the Mile, you have to pay the price.

The character who causes the most profound change on all of the guards is John Coffey (Duncan), a gigantic man found guilty of killing two young girls. Yet after meeting Coffey for the first time, Edgecomb develops doubts as to the man’s guilt. Despite his considerable size he never hurts any of the guards, which he could easily do with a swat of his massive arms. He even asks Edgecomb if they keep the lights on at night because he is afraid of the dark.

Things take a supernatural turn when Coffey grabs Edgecomb and seems to suck out the illness out his body. For weeks he was suffering from a painful urinary infection, making a trip to his outdoor bathroom an unbearable journey. Yet after being healed by Coffey he can finally have sex with his wife (Bonnie Hunt) literally from dusk till dawn. As his wife says they hadn’t had that much fun since they were 19. It’s a miracle.

Any movie set on death row will have characters asking themselves questions about mortality, but what are the guards to do with a man who can delay death with a touch of his hands? The men who arrested Coffey said it as though he dropped out of the sky. Could he have come from above? If so, what will happen to the man who ends his life?

This is the role for which Michael Clark Duncan will be remembered and it is indeed a memorable role. In a film filled with acting heavy weights such as Tom Hanks, Sam Rockwell and James Cromwell as the prison warden, Duncan managed to stand out with his performance, earning him an Academy Award nomination. With a body like that, it was easy for Duncan to play tough guys or villains, yet he managed to play the most innocent man to ever walk on death row.   

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