There’s a dead man, who walks `the green mile`
And another, bored to death, who sees the movie
The term ‘green mile’ was prison-speak for the path from the holding cell in the death row to the electric chair, in the state of Louisiana, USA, back in the 1930s, so named for its antiseptic green concrete floor. The distance was a short one, but to the condemned, it felt like a mile.
The Green Mile is a valiant cinematic effort, one of many that began with the hocus of The Exorcist (of the rotating head fame) and the pocus of Omen (of the really spoilt bratty kid fame). The genre was picked up in the early 2000s and carried through by the ludicrous higgledy-piggledy of the paranoid Dan Brown crap called The Da Vinci Code and it’s equally implausible successors.
Deeply religious Christians, especially the American variety, are simplistic and obsessed with evil. Throw in a role for the Satan or his minions and a movie is sure to be a blockbuster, as long as he is destroyed in the last scene. Mediocre writers such as Stephen King, William Peter Blatty and Dan Brown have made millions out of the red guy with the swishing tail.
This ‘black or white with no shades of grey’ mindset is common to all three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In Hinduism on the other hand, that ‘us versus them’ ethos does not exist. It is more like ‘us versus us’, since Hinduism believes that the evil is not some separate external entity but something that actually resides within us. While the others go like ‘you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that’, Hinduism leaves it pretty much to the believer’s conscience to make the choices, without the threat of any retribution.
Hinduism is far more pragmatic and readily recognizes the grey – which is that everyone has two sides to him, with many shades in between and his overall personality fluctuates between the two poles. And this includes Hinduism’s Gods as well, by the way.
In the epic, Ramayana, even in the heat of conflict the terrible Ravana, having abducted Rama’s wife, Seeta, didn’t lay a finger on her. Even so, Rama still let doubt about her chastity linger inside him. Mahabharata’s Karna, supposedly on the side of the bad guys, was known for his generosity and earned the sobriquet ‘datha Karna’ (datha – generous one). Judhishthira, the exalted one, known throughout the land as satyavadi (the truthful one), blatantly lied to achieve his ends. And the most imperfect of all was the prefect one – Lord Krishna himself, the capo-di-tutti-capi of Hindu Gods. He dispensed harsh justice in the form of decapitation with his sudershana chakra, sometimes even when he didn’t have to.
Maybe that is why, in Hinduism there is no such thing as blasphemy. Heck, the religion criticizes itself, even more harshly than it’s own followers. Hinduism has made Gods in the image of man while the Abrahamic religions have made prophets in the image of God. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad and all those other 120,000 prophets that the Abrahamic religions share among themselves – they are all depicted, to the very last one of them, not as humans as they actually were, but the holiest of the holy, superhuman beings.
Maybe there lies the basic flaw – the proof of the pudding is always in the eating, after all. If the Abrahamic prophets really had been such hotshots, wouldn’t the world have been by now a paradise to live in? Instead, it seems more and more like a cesspool. If they had been what the Abrahamic religions believe they were, would we still have folks like Dick Cheney, Donald Trump and Pappu Yadav lording it out over us?
Unlike it’s predecessors in the holy-vs-satan genre, The Green Mile does not have swivelling heads, murderous kids and albino Opus Dei assassins, but it unleashes swarming chirping bee-like bugs coming out of the good guy’s mouth and getting sucked into the bad guy’s mouth which the bad guy had left conveniently gaping. If I saw bees swarming out of a guy’s mouth two feet away, I’d shut mine and duck, first thing.
In case by now you aren’t feeling like tennis, here`s a short synopsis of the story……
The movie begins in the present day, inside a Louisiana seniors’ residence. Paul Edgecomb is overwhelmed by emotion while watching the 1935 Fred Astaire film `Top Hat`. To a fellow resident, he narrates the story of a period in his life as a correctional officer in charge of death row inmates at the Cold Mountain Penitentiary, during the summer of 1935.
The movie continues thereafter as a flashback. Paul (Tom Hanks) is a very calm and sympathetic guard who generally treats the convicts on death row with respect. Considering how American correctional facilities really are and how correctional officers actually behave, you almost expect a pig to fly across the screen next. Instead you have a nice-guy prison guard. You brace yourself for another tear-jerker.
One day, a gigantic black convict named John Coffey (Michael Clark Duncan), arrives on death row. He is terrifying to look at, upwards of seven feet tall and at least four feet wide. But much to the surprise of the other guards and inmates (and me and the rest of the audience), he is very shy and soft-spoken.
For a bible-thumping writer like Stephen King, of course that is not enough. When someone is good, he has to be really goooood. Coffey has powers, miraculous powers…….
During the course of the movie, the black giant permanently heals Paul’s bladder infection, merely by shaking his hand. I dare say that even in 1935, medical science was advanced enough to be able to cure a simple urinary infection. However, let’s give Stephen King the benefit of doubt and let Paul have an incurable disease, like Rajesh Khanna’s lymphus acoma of the intestine (re: his tearjerker ‘Anand’). Let’s proceed to the next miracle….
John Coffey brings a mouse back to life merely by his touch, after the poor little bugger had been squished by the sadistic prison guard, Percy Wetmore (brilliantly played by Doug Hutchison). Maybe Coffey’s expertise in the art of resurrection was confined to only mice. He could well have brought the two unfortunate little girls whom he was convicted of raping and murdering, back to life and maybe gone free since they would have been able to testify that he was not the perp. But hey, this is Stephen King we are talking about – the king of mumbo-jumbo.
The sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison)
The fascinating subplot of the mouse is perhaps the only thing I liked about the movie. He is a lovable creature who loves death row for some strange reason. The prisoners and the guards (except for mouse-squasher Percy), come to love him too. The tiny rodent scurries under the cell bars, in and out of the cells and provides a novel source of entertainment for the inmates. I suspect that it is a message for the audience – maybe that even a mouse is worth something, just as even heinous murderers are God’s creations.
John Coffey is now on a roll – a healing rock and roll. He heals the hallucinating and dangerously bipolar terminally ill wife of Warden Hal Moore (James Cromwell). Unfortunately, given the rabidly racist times, Mrs. Moore’s healing doesn’t gain Coffey any brownie points, even in the eyes of the warden himself. Coffey is still slated to go to the chair.
In any case, miracles don’t impress me. They are for folks with weak minds that need a heroin-like fix. A fantasy is like wanting to go to bed with Scarlett Johanssen. A miracle is actually going to bed with Scarlett Johanssen. Since it could never happen to me, it doesn’t impress me. QED.
When John is asked to explain his miraculous powers, he merely states that he “took it back,” maybe meaning that he sucked up other folks’ problems the way Christ vacuumed up everyone else’s sins. With their miraculous powers, both John Coffey and Jesus Christ might have saved themselves and lived to spread the ‘word’ a bit longer, but they didn’t, preferring to sacrifice themselves instead.
Christianity is grounded in self-sacrifice, an inexplicable philosophy so strong that it prevents someone from fighting for himself even in the face of terrible injustice. Aren’t we feeding into evil when we do that, I wonder. Of course, self-sacrifice movies may be a huge hit in the west, but most movie-goers only want to wallow in it for three hours and go home feeling good. I always carry a salt cellar in my pocket – to take the self-sacrificing with.
The other sterling performance is the part of death row inmate, Eduard ‘Del’ Delacroix, superbly played by Michael Jeter, seen here with his best buddy – the mouse. Del’s horrific execution in the hands of the evil Percy and his love for the mouse are unforgettable.
There is one other performance that bowled me over – the violent psychopath named ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton (pricelessly played by Sam Rockwell). Wharton is in death row for multiple homicides committed during a robbery. At one point, Wharton takes John Coffey’s hand and……
forget it, I don’t want to spoil your fun. I’ll let you find out.
In the end, The Green Mile relies on a cheesy and implausible plot and special effects, to wrestle with the universal conflicts that are inherent in human nature, especially the dark side of it. It is about good and evil, the struggle between Jehovah and the Satan, about the physical world and the spiritual one, about punishment and redemption and basically about how some people are basically good and others abysmally evil. If it hadn’t been so lengthy (3 hours), I might have recommended it to you.
The director, Frank Darabont, is a Stephen King groupie. He is the same guy who directed the phenomenally successful The Shawshank Redemption, by far one of the best cinematic experience I have ever had. Shawshank was another prison film that was similar in the milieu – the relationship between a black and a white man, an innocent man being convicted and imprisoned, also taken from a novel by Stephen King. Unfortunately Green Mile doesn’t hold a candle to Shawshank.
And the unbelievable thing about this movie – the good guy John Coffey, a black, who is terrifying to look at but actually soft, cuddly, bristling with miraculous supernatural powers and he is so good, good, good. Wait, that isn`t the unbelievable part. The incomprehensible thing about the film is that Coffey was taken alive and not lynched and/or shot full of holes at the time of his capture by a trigger-happy redneck posse who found him holding two dead little white girls in his arms. He was not the killer but they were not the kind who would want to wait around trying to find out. Then again, Stephen King wouldn`t have had his story.
The late superstar movie critic, Roger Ebert, got carried away after seeing the movie and ended up drawing parallels between Stephen King and Charles Dickens – ” Stephen King, sometimes dismissed as merely a best-seller, has in his best novels some of the power of Dickens.”
Sure, like in What the Dickens is wrong with Ebert?