FOUR STARS - POWERFUL
Death row is not where one would expect to find a life-affirming message. But this is not a usual film. With much of the same depth and strength of his earlier “Shawshank Redemption,” author Stephen King gives us a glimpse into the struggle of good and evil in the lives of prisoners on death row.
Though this is not a film for children or sensitive viewers due to graphic language and violent images, the power of love and life is clearly accentuated in the story.
Though it is also not specifically religious, the film presents a Biblical worldview. The warden and leading characters are all church-attending Christians and the Christian care and respect for prisoners is clearly shown as they attempt to not only guard them from escape, but also to guard their human dignity.
Presented as the flashback of an elderly man in a retirement home, the primary story occurs in a southern penitentiary in 1935.
Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks in 1935; Dabbs Greer in 1999) is the officer in charge of section E, the death row of the prison. They call their cell block “The Green Mile,” because the floor of the prison is painted green on this last mile a prisoner walks before reaching the electric chair.
Edgecomb is joined by Brutus “Brutal” Howell (David Morse), a large man who shares Edgecomb’s underlying respect for the human beings who are assigned to their care, and two other humane guards. Together, they create a loving community in this most unlikely of places.
This is the first strength of the film. In a world where evil is done and justice is required, it is difficult to preserve the dignity of even a condemned prisoner. Yet, time after time, in scene after scene, these men model how truly humane people should behave themselves, both in their gentle respect and in their justice.
This loving dignity is highlighted by the introduction of its antithesis in Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison), the nephew of the Governor’s wife. A weak and evil young man who has used his connections to get assigned to the Green Mile, it becomes obvious that he is there to see someone die.
However, it is not only their physical death in which he wants to participate, he also wants to kill their spirit. Using his uniform as a cover, Percy is capable of a spiritual evil far more heinous because of its hypocrisy.
Into the Green Mile is introduced a prisoner who is a giant of a man, both physically and spiritually. An African-American named John Coffey (Michael Duncan), he has been unjustly convicted of the brutal rape and murder of two young girls.
At first it is thought that Coffey is retarded, but it becomes increasingly clear that instead he lives almost entirely on a spiritual level. With a power that is miraculous, Coffey introduces into their lives a goodness greater than the evil Percy represents.
Also introduced onto the Mile is a capricious evil in the person of William “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell). With a blatant disregard for others that makes him capable of doing evil with a smile on his face, Wharton is a mocker of the good.
What follows in the interaction of these good guards, this miraculous spiritual presence and the mocking and hypocritical evil is a classic study of the spiritual battle within which we live our lives.
Evil, in its many forms, is not always obvious. It can reside in those outside our prisons as well as those within. The truth that the evil of this world often attacks the most miraculous and spiritually powerful beings who come to us, is a central message of Christian faith and experience.
Along the Green Mile Coffey enters everyone’s life as a conquest of evil and a triumph of humble love. John Coffey may not be Jesus, but carries within him more than just the same initials. Although condemned to die for a sin he did not commit, he offers life to everyone around him, including his captors and the condemned prisoners at his side.
Since the suspense of the film requires that we not reveal how this is shown or what happens in this conflict of good and evil, it only remains to be said that “The Green Mile” is a classic portrayal which can enrich the life of anyone who considers its deeper meanings and looks for the Life portrayed.