The Green Mile is one of those movies that almost leaves its viewers with more questions than answers. It’s been on my list of movies to write about for a while, and is the first request I’m finally getting to fulfill.
The film starts off with the main character, Paul, played by Tom Hanks, as an old man in a nursing facility. He breaks down in tears watching an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie and a friend from the home tries to console him. So, he tells her the story of the a year of his life as a prison guard on Death Row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. While death row is typically called “the last mile” they called theirs “the green mile” due to the floor color.
Two inmates already reside the mile. And we’re never really told what they’ve done. But things really get interesting with John Coffey (played by Michael Clarke Duncan) is brought in. He is huge – and has been convicted of a horrible crime, raping and murdering two little girls. They expect him to be hard to handle, but they find that he is quiet, gentle and quite opposite from what they imagined. They even learn he is afraid of the dark.
It isn’t long before another inmate, known as “Billy the Kid” is brought to the mile He is juvenile in his antics, but proves himself quite dangerous very early in his stay. He is a huge contrast to the sweet and quiet John Coffey. Add to all this, one guard, Percy, who is angry and bitter. He beats on prisoners, believing them to be sub-human and looking for ways to control them. When they actually need him to take action, he can’t.
Paul begins to doubt that John has committed the crime he’s been convicted of, but it isn’t until John heals Paul of a bladder infection, that Paul really starts doing some digging. He doesn’t mention the healing to anyone but later events leave witnesses of other miracle healings. More and more they are convinced that John could not have committed the crime he is convicted of. This film is full of talking points – and I’m sure it would take multiple posts to really go into all of them, but here’s a start:
All people deserve to be treated with dignity: Most of the guards are very careful about how they talk to and handle the prisoners. The do not condone physical or verbal abuse. They say that staying calm and talking the prisoners prevents issues with already tense prisoners. They are very careful to find distractions for the prisoners being executed while they practice the execution process. Even to the end, they do everything they can to make the execution as clean, quick and calm as possible. You know they don’t enjoy killing these men. In contrast, we see Percy who is mean to the prisoners and treats them as scum. He doesn’t care about them beyond how his poor treatment makes him feel superior. But what this difference shows is how when treated with respect, most of the prisoners are peaceful and lovable. When situations are tense do we tend to lash out, or do we try to keep things calm? What about when you encounter someone that scares you? I believe in most cases, you’ll find it that even though you may want to react like Percy, you’ll find the typical way of the guards gets much farther with much less uproar… Granted, most of us don’t have padded rooms we can throw people in who disrespect us, but for the most part, they handled everything through calm and even a little humor, when appropriate.
Child-like nature: One thing I’ve noticed each time I’ve watched The Green Mile is the child-like nature of the prisoners. Is that because they are somehow emotionally or mentally stunted and their lack of maturity is what led to the crimes that landed them there. I find myself wondering if you peel back the layers of our current prison inmates, that you’d find certain similarities.
At the same time, John’s gift of being able to heal, seems to be in a strange package. But, as we see in scripture, God always chooses someone that we wouldn’t expect. John is dirty, sweaty, uneducated – but gentle and truly caring. Once you see John in action, you know there is no way he could have committed the heinous acts he is sentenced to death for.
The death penalty: Well, if you are on the fence about the electric chair, this film will definitely show you how violent a death it really is – even without the disastrous one. None of the inmates deny what they’ve done and I’m sure their crimes were heinous, but seeing them as the men in the cell – relatively childlike and powerless, it was hard to see them killed.
St. Christopher reference: When John Coffey first arrives at the prison, the prison wagon appears to be riding extremely low. And John is a BIG guy, but as I watched the scene (and having seen it several times before) it struck me as an analogy to St. Christopher. For those not familiar with the Christopher story, the basics are that Christopher was crossing a river and a child asked to be carried across. The child was unbelievably heavy. Later it was understood that in carrying the child, he was carrying Christ who was carrying the whole world. So, when I saw that prison wagon carrying such a load, it made me wonder. Then later, one of those healed gives John a St. Christopher medal, suggesting the St. Christopher would protect him. What do you make of it? Is John supposed to represent Christ?
If he is meant to be a Christ figure, it certainly explains the healings and the profound sadness he shows about how people treat each other. It also explains the low riding wagon. Could it be that John Coffey was supposed to be such a big figure physically to show us how big Christ is figuratively. Of course, if that was the case, I would have thought John Coffey would have bigger… but At first I wondered why John would choose to die… but then I realized Jesus did just that. I’m sure he could have gotten himself out of his situation, but he did it for us. That is the big difference between Jesus and John Coffey… Coffey was escaping. Jesus suffered and died for us!
Sweet, gentle John Coffey also sets into motion events that I always thought exacted revenge, which disappointed me… however, looking as him as a Christ figure, I’m guessing it could be called “judgment” or at least helping put them before God for His judgment.
In conclusion: The Green Mile is rated R for violence, language and sexual references – and deservedly so. It does however, provide a lot of food for thought. Think about the difference in how the guard and the prisoners interact in comparison with how you look at the people you encounter in your life. Think about how we are called to love, and that love is not a weakness, but evil does try to exploit it and we cannot let it win! Think about the implications of the death penalty. Think about what you would do if you were John Coffey or Paul Edgecomb. If you can do that, I’m sure you’ll learn something!