THE POWER OF NOT USING POWER
On the face of it, the movies about the penitentiary system, prisons, inmates, and jail wardens look too individual, estranged from the common viewer’s reality. Relatedly, the Green mile by Frank Darabont narrates its story in universal, common to all mankind language and cinematic means, used to draw a metaphor between the day-to-day life and the routine at Block-E at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. What is more, both Stephen King’s novel and Darabont’s adaptation stay away from tipping over into trivial black-and-white narration with antagonists and protagonists divided by the bar and law. It took off from there to understand that it’s crucially a half-measure to evaluate the characters, and get deeper into their motivation, fears, and impact on the story, by simply defying who is the convicted and who is a superintendent with a badge. The topic of power, both physical and mental, its use either for good or for abuse, the degradation of energy with time, and excessive use of privileges: all these form one of the key topics of Green mile explained in overwhelmingly simple terms.
The movie gets its start with a fragmentarily cut sequence dominated by men with rifles and pitchforks while running across the rural area of Southern states. Up to a point, the audience is left with no exact clue to the nature of the opening scene. The short sequence gives its way to the elderly’s people home somewhere in the woods of Georgia, stated by King as a “State-of-the-art retirement complex for the elderly”. The elderly people, who are enfeebled by age and diseases, spend their days in accordance with a schedule, compete for choosing the TV channel, and are supervised by hospital attendants dressed in uniform. As the story goes on, the Green mile accustoms us to the fact we should not judge the book by its cover and a few minutes of the characters on screen leaves us with no more than guesses. It is a revealing narrational means, that the story forms its own grotesque scale for evaluation. We see ‘the worst’ convicted inmate: William “Wild Bill” Wharton (Sam Rockwell), at least two ‘neutral’ or even ‘good’ incarcerated remorseful individuals: Arlen Bitterbuck and Eduard “Del” Delacroix, and finally an innocent man, later revealed to be a miracle in flash: John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan).
Darabont’s brilliant narrative does the same gradation when it comes to the guarding officers. We see villainous, backstabbing, chicken-hearted Percy Wetmore as ‘the worst’ superintendent, a few ‘good’ ones: Brutus “Brutal” Howell, Dean Stanton, Harry Terwillinger, and Bill Dodge, and finally the protagonist character Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks). As seen above, we have both ‘good’ characters and villains and neutral characters (including Hal and Melinda Moores) on both sides of the prison bars. In strong contrast to Samuel Norton From ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, an exhausted warden Hal Moores is not a ‘bad’ man. He supervises the order and discipline in ‘Cold Mountain’ without using unnecessary violence towards the inmates as well as abuse when he deals with his subordinates, including Paul Edgecomb. The only thing he craves is either a healthy life for his wife or her painless end. In the later scene in the movie with a shotgun in his hands at night, Moores does not have the strength to shoot John Coffey: he instead trusts his friend Paul.
When we see the character of Michael Clarke Duncan for the first time, his bodybuilding-kind constitution, the visual symbols, and cinematic means: all make an impression of what a giant is just coming to the Mile. The tail section of the vehicle is relieved once Coffey alights and the first part of his body that we see is his monstrous feet. The scene emphasizes the fact of how small and even pathetic the guard shouting ‘Deadman walking’ looks next to Coffey. Arlen Bitterbuck, a convicted murderer at Block E, himself not an easy man, looks at the new inmate from the bottom upwards with caution. Even the tallest Brutus “Brutal” Howell of merely two meters high, seems to be head and shoulders below the newcomer giant. The camera takes patiently two minutes before revealing the face of John Coffey. As opposed to the image of the last two minutes, the giants look scared and lost, covered with sweat not so much due to the heat, but rather because of the unrest. He used ‘Sir, boss’ to address the commanding officer. Coffey does nothing to give the violence back to Percy Wetmore, who bullied him and used his stick. John Coffey behaves peacefully and submissively when the guards release him from shackles. What is even more in contrast to his appearance and the image of a cruel murderer is his question: ‘DO YOU LEAVE THE LIGHT ON AFTER BEDTIME?’. This giant does not look like a man, who gets a little scared in the dark sometimes. The culmination of this scene comes with the moment when John Coffey extends his hand to Paul Edgecomb
Paul? You might wanna reconsider
getting in the cell with this guy?
Can’t be bigger than you.
Progressively as Paul witnesses John Coffey’s incredible gift and peaceful behavior, and experiences his healing abilities first-hand, he increasingly doubts Coffey’s guilt. The file on the inmate provides the full extent of so-called evidence against Coffey and the details of his arrest and trial, yet not enough for Edgecomb. The protagonist decides to take a ride to another country to meet Coffey’s trial lawyer but finds out that the defender is as confident in the verdict as the others before him. The judgment of all people engaged, the prejudices toward the black man in the state of Georgia in 1935, his appearance, and finally the fact of being put into the block for prisoners sentenced to death: all these, one would think, leave Paul Edgecomb with no alternatives than to blame Coffey for the murder of Detterick twins. As the story goes on, the audience comes to the understanding of not only his innocence in that horrible crime but of the complete mismatch between the prejudice and the man. Even if we put aside for some time Coffey’s gift and mystical nature, his deeds and not his appearance is the argument that should be treated as a litmus paper of a man.
He’s…strange, I admit. But there doesn’t seem to be any real violence in him. I know violent men, Mr. Hammersmith. I deal with ’em day in and day out.
Coffey’s childlike behavior and his pure nature not only contrast with his impressive stature and visible physical power: he does not use these abilities for taking advantage of other people. It comes as no surprise that both the father of the murdered girls and the men around him treated Coffey as a maniac rapist and butcher, once they found him with the bodies of children. As the movie explains that John tried to bring the girls back to life and cried about his own inability to save them, it is impossible to treat the man as a beast. He was devastated by the violence that someone used against those children. It turns out that neither his stature, nor the color of Coffey’s skin, nor his social status has something in common with the crime he is regarded as guilty of. Have been John in fact an atrocious murderer, he could use his strength to escape from custody. If he had the madness of Wild Bill, he could harm or even kill the guards at the ‘Green mile’, particularly Paul Edgecomb. It should come as no shock that Paul’s colleagues insisted on taking shotguns while transporting Coffey to Melinda Moores. Taking into consideration the potential physical strength of the prisoner, it could be a bit of a challenge to stop him in case of an escape attempt. They have the right to calculate such possibilities due to their years-long work next to the convicted murderers.
I just can’t see God putting a gift like that in the hands of a man who would kill a child.
Well, that’s a tender notion, but the man’s on death row for the crime. Plus, he’s huge. If he tried to get away, it’d take a lot of bullets to stop him.
We’d all have shotguns in addition to sidearms. I’d insist on that.
Instead of using his physical vigor to hurt other people, John Coffey does all in his power to cure other creatures: he heals and brings them back to life rather than trying to take their lives. It is worth mentioning that John regards the convicted prisoner Eduard “Del” Delacroix with a humane attitude. The latter did commit a dreadful crime, yet he has been remorseful since that and strongly regrets the pain he brought to other people. Delacroix shows no violence or antagonism toward the guards (except for Percy in response to his violent attitude) or other inmates on the Mile, and what is even more important, he treats a little mouth with admiration and love. John Coffey had no chance to touch Delacroix’s hand to see his past and the crimes committed, yet he can see how Delacroix takes care of Mister Jingles. In a scene when Paul brings some homemade bread to John as gratitude, Coffey shares it with Delacroix and the mouse (evidently another biblical reference). The French man asks patiently and politely as opposed to William “Wild Bill” Wharton. When later John reveals that he understands the final destination of their ride (to help a lady), it becomes clearer that he knows way more than he could in custody. During the execution of Delacroix, John indeed suffers. From the perspective of the law, justice is carried out, yet it is no more than another killing.
Paul Edgecomb does not have a glimpse of Coffey’s impressive stature or of his friend Brutal Howell. Along with that, he is the chief guarding officer at the Green mile and he strongly relies on his experience and his devoted partners in work. We can easily catch his authority while Brutus, Dean, and Harry wait for Paul’s reaction to the events regarding both the inmates and Percy Wetmore. Edgecomb has no need to rely on brutal force in order to keep Block E in order. Paul does his best to keep discipline due to his respective attitude toward both the convicted prisoners and his colleagues. He denies Percy’s behavior, yet Paul has no alternative but to wear the temporary circumstances. In King’s novel, we may find Paul’s revelation that he had to break a few fingers during his work, yet it was only a minimal reaction to the situational aggressiveness of some inmates in the past” a necessary evil to keep order. Edgecomb never uses his power to make revenge on the man, who had been insubmissive enough. His reaction is always equal or even softer than he could act against Wild Bill for example. The young man is being taken to the isolation cell, which does not confront the rules, yet Paul does use harsh methods such as beating or cutting the ration. Everybody here understands that Edgecombe is the boss on the Mile without a constant need to remind of this fact or to keep fear. His power lies in the trust of other people, in the teamwork of the guards, and in their respective attitudes toward the prisoners. At the same time, we see Paul vulnerable due to his infection: exhausted and tired of the pain. it should come as no surprise that a man who has problems with relieving himself in the toilet, can rule the death block.
Percy Wetmore is the character, or better to say a villain, who acts as a moral or rather morally bankrupt opposition to Paul, Harry, Dean, Brutus, and Hal Moores. He was not driven to the Green mile to improve the dire finances of his family amid the Great Depression and definitely not to build a respectful career. As his own saying goes, temporary work at Block E is only a step before obtaining a position in a local asylum. At the same time, it is unlikely that he could not get the job in the clinic initially, regarding his uncle Governor and a lovely aunt. The latter was probably not very enthusiastic about the idea of working next to the convicted murderers. The point is that by having neither physical power nor intellect or respect, Percy cares for dominance over other people. Notably, not a bureaucratic control of some white-collar man, but a direct physical and moral dominance. One may ask, what is the logic to choose prisoners or asylum patients? The answer is obvious: they are the most unprotected layer of the population, with not many chances to be heard once complaining.
Both Stephen King and Frank Darabont underline the fact that Percy looks pathetic once the situation is off course. He may look high and mighty only with a stick in his hand and in safe conditions without anyone standing behind his back. It is not an exaggeration to claim that Percy Wetmore gets a sadistic pleasure when he breaks Delacroix’s fingers and hears his beginning shouts, as well as when he kills a little mouse. The movie uses cinematic means and narrational magic to emphasize the opposition between these two: Percy and Mister Jingles. In contrast to Paul Edgecomb, Percy’s power is illusive and artificial. Wetmore looks even more pathetic when he constantly reminds others about his family connections. It is highly likely that he owns some privileges only due to the good heart of his aunt. Percy does not get respect from other guards not only because of his cruel attitude toward inmates but due to his arrogant frame of mind when it comes to his colleagues. He actually does not respect other people, he hates them for what he lacks: physical strength, intellect, authority, and a sense of humor.
We may safely assume that his transfer to the asylum could result only in the abuse of patients, who are even more unprotected than a man behind the bars. He wants to send a man to the electric chair, to give the final order for execution. By not wetting the sponge up, Percy shows his elusive dominance and power over the issue of life and death for Delacroix. It is interesting to note that King’s book has the referential character of a hospital nurse, who bullies the elderly Paul Edgecomb, as well as worthless and scummy as Percy was. The character of Percy Wetmore is a quintessential image of one of the Green mile ideas that a human being may bring harm to other people and creatures and do it with intent. You may wonder how unimportant may the killing of a mouth sound is in the prison Block with the doomed criminals. Relatedly, even such an event and Percy’s behavior infuriates the other guards. Wetmore not only abused the inner peace of a convicted man in his last days before execution. He actually conducted an execution of a mouse, thus crossing the invisible line between the excepted guilt and murder. The moment serves as a kind of red flag for Brutus, Paul, Harry, and Dean. After years of routine work on the Mile, they are finally taken out of the circle.
William “Wild Bill” Wharton is another villainous character, who brings neither sympathy nor pleasure to even look at him. In the novel, Wharton is only nineteen years old and was convicted to death for the known murders of at least three people, including a pregnant woman. Toward the end of the story, when we find out about his cruel abuse and murder of the Detterick twins, the actual number of his victims seems a matter of controversy. He lacks the physical appearance of John Coffey, yet Wharton is tough enough to rape and kill two girls and is close to suffocating a guard to death. His behavior expresses his total neglect of human life and dignity or the opinion of other people. His nature is to cause trouble to society and, as he sees this, to stand out from the crowd. Relatedly Bill is a good actor when he needs it. Klaus and Marjorie Detterick did not suspect him to be a potential murderer of their daughters. He is as well convincing while pretending to be a madman on drugs during his transfer from the asylum to the Cold Mountain prison. Once he is taken to the isolation cell, Wharton simulates the fit of epilepsy and he could be even nice when he wants to eat or drink something.
The “Wild Bill” is the second example of a character in Green mile, who uses his strength to harm other people: to rape, suffocate, grab someone from the back, lie, humiliate and abuse, and even kill. It is important to understand that in parallel to Percy Whatmore, Wharton understands only a means of forcing himself, when the guards put him into a camisole to spend a day in the seclusion room similar to their antidote to Percy. Wild Bill could not be treated or debated with a language of arguments or drawing the red lines. Similar to the way that Percy defends himself from potential danger by voicing his connections, Bill takes advantage of the fact that the prison officers could not fight him back proportionally, at least with the given movie characters, who are depicted to be ‘good’ and to preserve a kind of code of honor. A respectful attitude toward the inmates does not work with William Wharton. It is twice symbolic that it is Percy Whetmor who kills Wharton. One backstabbing antagonist brought the life of another to an end.
BEING IN LOVE WITH THE WORLD
Forasmuch as John Coffey is presented in a semi-mystical vein, as a godlike human being, it is important to take a closer look at his engagement with the surrounding world. Both the book and the movie leave us a little background of Coffey’s story before the death of Detterick girls, while King’s novel leaves a clue that he once had parents. We may also analyze his own words regarding his exhaustion from living in the world of hatred and violence to assume that he had lived for at least some time prior to being convicted. All it takes to shake the audience’s good spirit is to imagine this giant, who walks across the field of flowers and grass until he finds the bloodied bodies of two little girls. As I have stated above, the first two minutes of this character on the screen give us no understanding of Coffey’s vulnerable nature as a man, who can not harm even a mouse and instead who cures others by touching. The men of the state of Georgia, who condemned John to death in 1935 (1932 in the novel), regarded him only as a giant black man in the cotton jumpsuit, uneducated, who had been found crying next to the bodies of two white girls. It is essential to state that in disregard to the attitude of the world toward John Coffey, their disregard contempt attitude, he preserved a small amount of admiration of the same world, which anyways is a burden for John.
I love ’em, is why. They don’t think no hurtful thoughts. They’s just happy to be. Happy little lightning bugs…
On the surface of Coffey’s admiration for the world itself, not human civilization, are the scenes when he is being transported to the country house of Moores. For the first time throughout the movie, we see John outside the prison walls in relative situational freedom. It comes with intrigue that a man who can hardly pronounce his own name, identifies Cassiopeia within a star sky, the Lady in the chair. Coffey’s childish delight goes in contrast with Edgecomb’s cautionary carefulness. Paul is more likely to see the bars rather than the stars. In the wood, John grabs an armful of forest soil cover, scents the smell of nature, and shares it with Paul and Brutus. Another remarkable sequence of John’s joyance is his watching of the ‘Top hat’ (1935) movie, his first and last moving pictures at the dawn of sound cinema. Similar to how the movies were once regarded as the miracle, John Coffey is depicted in the same vein.
It is not an exaggeration to say that John Coffey behaves similarly to a child or is mildly mentally retarded: other people say it several times throughout both the movie story and King’s novel. Be this as it may, John Coffey has more rights to be regarded as a human being than the majority of his contemporaries even as opposed to his evident status of a convicted prisoner. In those few moments of temporary freedom outside his cell, John does what the generality of mankind has forgotten. He is in love with nature, takes delight in little things in life, he appreciates the kindness of people by not focusing primarily on bad habits. With regard to all the prejudice and cruel attitude of the human world toward himself, Coffey is delighted to shake hands with a good man, even if the latter earns money for sending other people to the electric chair. The image of John Coffey in ‘Green mile’ is an example of pure, almost mythologically biblical altruism. As opposed to most people who used only to take from others and the surrounding world, John shares his gift with other creatures, he tends to help and appreciates what he has. Yes, he is a big kid, who smells the leaves from the ground and fears darkness at night, but we sometimes lack that kind of inner child.
The topic of gratefulness runs as one of the red lines throughout the movie: both in practical execution and in abstract philosophical means. Paul’s gratitude to John for curing his urological disease is the turning point of the relationship between the two characters and Edgecomb’s doubts about Coffey’s ability to conduct a crime. This healing as an act of altruism brings Paul back from his long-year state of routine in doing business with death, of his over-compromising with the system and conscience. Another example of gratefulness may be found in the story of Hal and Melinda Moores and the struggle against the deadly disease. The warden tries to appreciate the ‘good days’ among those plenty of ‘bad ones’, and he takes delight in Paul’s friendship and visits. Even Coffey’s defense lawyer appreciates God for leaving his son one eye when he tells Paul the blood-chilling story about the dog. In opposition to all these we may recall both antagonists: Wild Bill and Percy: both take advantage of other people and are good only to ruin.
When it comes to the so-called ‘gray morale’ in the story, it is presented among other things with the introduction of the other two inmates on the Mile. It comes as no surprise that just before being executed, both Arlen Bitterbuck and Eduard Delacroix repent of their deeds, they would like to travel to the past and change everything not to kill and not to die. Both men spend their last hours before being killed with now unattainable images. For Bitterbuck the recollections about his youth and a young wife are only a glimpse of the past, which could never be played once again. All he is left with is the need to walk the last mile with dignity. Delacroix tries to soften his last hours being absorbed in the fantasies about Mister Jingles and Mouseville. The Green mile moves as opposed to the novel leave us no details of the cruel crimes these two have committed and instead provoke a kind of empathy toward the two criminals. The story gives more reasons to feel sympathy toward the two convicted murderers than to officers of the law such as Percy Wetmore, thus turning the basic principles of good and evil upside down. John Coffey imagines the Detterick twins alive, laughing and playing with Mister Jingles on John’s knees.
I dreamed those two little blondeheaded girls were there. They ‘us laughing, too. I put my arms around ’em and sat ’em on my knees, and there ‘us no blood comin’ outta their hair and they ‘us fine. We all watch Mr. Jingles roll that spool, and how we did laugh. Fit to bus’, we was.
SACRIFICE: THE ESSENCE OF BEING HUMAN
The readiness and willingness to make sacrifices for one’s own good and even life for the sake of other people is another binding thread of the whole Green mile story. John Coffey spends all his life with that kind of victimhood and readiness to die, although we do not get the answer of how long he lived. Whether he lived for thirty years with his gift or emerged in this world minutes before the Detterick twins’ murderer: he is in pain anyway of his inability to bring the girls back to life. Way before he was convicted for the crime of the other person and in parallel to the racial prejudice toward John, he lived with this painful agony inside. He has to pass the pain of the whole world through himself, particularly the cruelty which people do with each other every day. To the same extent as he takes delight in the smell of the forest cover, and the stars in the sky, John lives in a horribleness of murderers, rapes, and wars, which surround him. The touching to the sadist like Wild Bill makes John suffer even much, as well as the presence in one building with Eduard Delacroix during the horrific execution. In the novel, Coffeys says that he still feels all the people who have been executed in that electric chair. It is hard to imagine a more grim place for such a man than a prison block for those condemned to death.
Regarding all of the above, John’s real tragedy is not so much that he has his gift of accumulating the pain of the world and the nature of human beings. His own drama lies in the fact that he often feels unable to help those people who deserve it, and whose suffering he passes through himself. It is essential to recall the scene when a group of armed men finds Coffey in the field next to the bodies of two murdered girls. He is shouting and crying not because he has committed that crime, but because he suffers so much about the fact that he could not bring them back to life, or cure the damage to their tiny bodies. It is highly likely that it never was in Coffey’s power to bring two human beings alive the way he could do with a little mouse moments after Mister Jingles’ death or with curing Melinda Moores’ tumor. Small wonder that the image of John Coffey is often regarded as some kind of reference to Jesus Christ’s figure, trying to find parallels even in the JC initials. Another mythical messiah was supposedly killed for his mission and altruism. Anyway, John Coffey’s story has much more practical means for discussion.
It is essential to underline that John Coffey was not cast away by society because of his incredible gift, which in fact was revealed to only a few prison guards, the warden, and his wife. He was rejected by his contemporaries because of more practical routine considerations. Getting back to his first appearance in the movie and the attitude of the other people in the state of Georgia in 1935, John was seen by them as merely a negro above two meters high, an uneducated convicted murderer from the Cold mountain prison, capable to conduct a crime. What actually happens is that being a good-natured and softhearted person, John saw a little kindness in his life. He had been an outsider all his life before he found a friendship of people, who would have to lead him to the electric chair with tears in their eyes. With all his powers, John Coffey never found his own place in this giant world apart from a cell in Block E for convicted murderers, a dark place that may be frightening with the light turned off. Coffey is condemned to meet his end in a place with so much pain, injustice, and the sense of his own inability to help. He succeeded in bringing a little mouse back to life, but he knows his power is not enough to try to bring Delacroix back. Neither his physical power nor his mighty gift saved John Coffey from judgment and cruelty.
Coffey’s real gift lies not in his mystical ability to take illnesses from people and potentially bring them to life. His real blessing is the nature of a man who wants to help other people altruistically without return, to give of oneself at the cost of his own suffering, to sacrifice himself. This essence of being human is his greatest gift and his agony at the same time as Coffey understands he could not deal with the whole world, he could not help people who reject kindness and do not want to be assisted. Coffey is a true human being, and that’s why it is so painful to him to live in a world, where people are used to egoism and to a habit of hurting each other. Despite the conventional references to religion when speaking about John Coffey character analysis, he is neither a righteous man nor a messiah, who would lead others into the centuries. Coffey’s story would be disclosed and known to the world and would live in the memory of a few prison officers, an elderly lady, and her husband. Six decades later, an elderly Paul Edgecomb shares this story with an aged woman in her eighties, who would leave this world in a few months after that as well.
Getting back to the theme of Coffey’s execution, it is not enough to realize that the man is going to be killed for a crime he has not committed. The point is John is ready to be executed willingly surrounded by the men, his friends, who know about his lack of guilt and who admire John. It should be treated with no surprise that both King’s novel and Darabont’s movie raise the still relevant (in 1932, 1935, 1996, 1999, or 2022) themes of justice, the fairness of the courts, the presumption of innocence, the death penalty and wrongfully convicted people. John Coffey looks giant and mighty, but in fact, he is a broken man, who has been vented long ago by the cruelty of the world. He is frightened and exhausted and the death seems a release from pain. While the Green mile movie leaves us with a suggestion or a clue that John could see at least some glimpses of the future, it is likely that he has always known the end of his life and has the will to meet it on his terms. Death comes as a mercy for Coffey as he can not live in such a cruel world anymore. In contrast to another possible reference to dying for the sins of others, Coffey’s death is not something that was predetermined. It was the end, he decided to take a choice. Getting back to the theme of his powers, John Coffey made no efforts to relieve himself from the upcoming execution on the chair. As if it wasn’t enough, when Paul asks John for permission to arrange a prison break, Coffey kindly rejects such an option. He wants to leave this life and John definitely does not want any troubles for Edgecombe.
The Green mile is known for several emotional spine-tingling scenes, yet the sequence of John Coffey’s execution stands out. Toward this moment in the story, not only do circumstantial factors point out John’s innocence, as well as his deeds and words, but also a vision of the past now available to Paul Edgecomb. On the days of their executions, both Arlen Bitterbuck and Eduard Delacroix looked vulnerable and broken men, caught by the finality ahead. When it comes to John, he is also an innocent man, who does not have to feel remorse. Apart from the fact, that the story provokes empathy to ward the convicted murderers (except Wild Bill), the viewer covers his three-hour journey next to John Coffey. Similar to Paul Edgecombe, we get a tiny part of this gift, enough to see the past and the circumstances of the Detterick twins’ death. The knowledge of the fact that Coffey meets his execution freely is intensified by the good-natured image of a giant kid, who wants to help other people without return.
He kill ’em with they love. They love for each other. You see how it is? That’s how it is ever’ day. That’s how it is all over the world…
Possible use of his powers for departure from custody would definitely mean intentional harm to other people, particularly to the guarding officers of Block E and personally to Paul. I would say it once again: John rejects the possibility of being released not only because he wants to see death and peace, but because he in no way wants to harm the career of Tom Hanks’ character. The scene of execution is emotionally intensified with Coffey’s ask not to cover his face as he is afraid of darkness. Despite his readiness to meet the end, John is afraid of death on the electric chair and his words: ‘I am in heaven’ from the recently seen movie only intensify the emotional apotheosis of the whole scene. Above all, John feels all the hate in this room, first of all, the withering look of Detterick’s spouse. In the last moments of his life, John does not take the blame for the other man: he excuses himself for being the one he is. He is indeed a stranger to this world: surely not many people in the whole world are ready to meet death for the crimes of others and not to make trouble for their friends. John grants Paul an exhausted yet smile at the very end of his life. It is an interesting idea to regard this moment as a clue that John knows that he has passed a part of his gift to his friend Paul Edgecombe, a good person. This is more likely, that John gives a smile to Paul as gratitude for their friendship and gives the latter a kind of relief amid the execution.
They’s a lot of folks here hate. A lot. I can feel it. Like bees stinging me. It hurts.
Feel how we feel, then. We don’t hate you–can you feel that?
The man, who has been brought to the prison block for the condemned murderers a few weeks before, whose file is full of dreadful details of the Detterick case, finally wins the support, friendship, and respect of a few men around him. Within this short period of time being a prisoner at the Cold Mountain facility, John Coffey cures Paul Edgecombe’s infection, brings little mouse Mister Jingles back to life, and finally saves Melinda Moores. The wife of the warden not only thanked the giant man for his deed without fully understanding what had just happened. She granted John a kind touch of a woman: probably the first in his life, and gave him her talisman for luck (which would not insure John against the electric chair as well as Mr. Moores from the tumor before). Brutus asks John to try to focus on the feeling they (the guards) are having about him in this cruel world, even taking into consideration the fact that they would have to execute Coffey a few minutes later. Now it is Paul Edgecomb who offers his hand to his friend John thus referring us to their very first encounter in the prison cell. The movie uses the repeating visual symbol to underline the journey of friendship and integrity that these two have made together. Back then Paul shook Coffey’s hand not to make a prisoner nervous and now it is an act of trust and respect. John Coffey’s sacrifice to this world is not completely unanswered. He leaves this life with gratitude, respect, and admiration for the people, whom he has helped. He actually relieves himself from the prison through death, and he is relieved from life not in the struggle but in peace.
WALKING THE GREEN MILE: PAUL EDGECOMB
In contrast to other prison officers in the Cold Mountain and elsewhere, the jail guards on the Mile get a salary not just for keeping discipline in the cells, but primarily for sending people to the electric chair as a means of social justice for convicted murderers. Death is their duty and commitment. As the punishment of the convicted persons serves a means of regulating social relations, the constituent executioners in prisons are not considered murderers themselves and get a salary for killing those regarded as not worthy of life for their crimes. Outside of Percy Wetmore, the hardened officers on the Mile do not get satisfaction from their control and authority over other people beyond the bars and they definitely had no need to be present at the execution of curiosity. At the same time, those executions have become a part of the job, a disturbing but routine duty. In the novel, Paul Edgecomb recalls that he sent seventy-eight people to death, with John Coffey being the last.
While all prison officers except for Percy are shown as ‘good’ people, the theme of the constituent bearers of the law in cinema is a classic example of the ‘gray morale’. Paul and his colleagues are preserved from the burden to pass a sentence upon others, deciding whether he or they would live or die. Relatedly the judge and twelve juries form only a reflection of society. For Paul, Brutus, Harry, and Dean, the arriving prisoners are guilty of the reasons that the respected court of the state of Georgia has stated in such a way. Each of them may look inside the file of one or another felon, but they used to find only dreadful details of the crimes committed. The word ‘executioners’ fits well to the issue as the guards on Mile only ‘execute’ the penalty, which has been agreed upon months and miles away from the ‘Cold Mountain’. The guards on the Mile have cultivated a kind of unwritten procedure regarding the last days of the inmate in this world, and they try to state close to those rules and their own working habits. Edgecomb in the book lets the reader see that such kind of work was never desirable for him, and he suffered from the very fact of sending people to death. He experienced insomnia, headaches, and remorse, yet he never considered leaving the job before his encounter with John Coffey.
It is peculiar to reveal or to invent a metaphor dealing with Paul’s urological infection, thus referring to the ‘burning’ doubts about his job, which he has suppressed for years. Beyond all doubt that the guards at Green mile could perform their duties of sending people to death only with strict confidence in the guilt of the convicted murderers, which used to give the officers a kind of self-distancing. We may even go a step further to assume that while inmates were expressing remorse for their crimes, the officers at the Mile used themselves to stay close to the habitual order and not to spend time on philosophy. As a means to suppress the feeling of abnormality of their work, Paul, Brutus, Dean, and Harry have adopted a kind of code of honor for their own behavior toward the convicted inmates. As opposed to the sadistic nature of Percy Whetmore, the hard-boiled correcting officers at Block E do their best to create a glimpse of comfort for the condemned men as far as practicable.
Paul and his subordinates never use physical force without a strict situational necessity or mental pressure upon the prisoners and try not to provoke nervosity or unnecessary anxiety. The guards perform their duties in such a way not only to keep the discipline in the Block but also to ease to some extent the passing of the condemned men from life. A few days before the execution, they always arrange rehearsal without the knowledge of the inmate himself. Later on, the guards shave the head of a condemned man. He is generally given a choice to have a good meal and even to express some last will, arrangeable for performing. Where applicable, a priest visits the condemned person, and in the case of John Coffey, it is Paul Edgecombe himself who voices a prayer. Paul spends his time lending a sympathetic ear to Bitterbuck and Delacroix: he emphasizes them to let them leave this life in relative peace, which they have not deserved. It is important to note that without any doubt of the guilt of these two, Paul gives sympathy to the men and their remorse, yet he regards such moments as a part of the process and his duties. If the convicted person loses one’s nerve, it is Paul Edgecombe who tries to convince the man to behave with dignity as this is the only thing the audience would remember.
We don’t scare ’em any more than we have to, Percy. They’re under enough strain as it is.
Men under strain can snap. Hurt themselves. Hurt others. That’s why our job is talking, not yelling. You’ll do better to think of this place like an intensive care ward in a hospital.
We may assume that prior to the arrival of John Coffey to the Green mile, the prison officer, and particularly Paul and Brutus, it may seem, were stacked in the inability to change their attitude. Similar to the ‘Shawshank Redemption’, the awakening of the fact that some person may be executed for a crime he has not committed may shatter even a fossilized mind. As long as the convicted murderer is regarded as unquestionably guilty, the value of his life in society is close to zero. At the same time, the deliberate sending of not only a ‘good’ person, but an unguilty person for execution, seems too much even for the guards, who have performed dozens of executions. In broader means, during the Fall of 1935, Paul Edgecombe makes a personal journey from a routine performing of his duties and a passive compromising with the system to the rejection of such a kind of justice and the irreducibility of its cruelty. After John Coffey, Paul executed not a single person, as well as Brutus, Dean, and Harry.
Evidently, for the first time in years, the thought of killing other human beings, even condemned murderers, makes his blood runs cold. It is highly likely that he confronts the previous belief that all seventy-seven people whom he executed were guilty. The hardest part of such an awakening is his understanding of the fact that society accepts such rare occasions as only an exception from the rule, which is not used to be spoken about. The cruel and awful execution of Eduard Delacroix due to Percy’s odious conduct actually has no real consequences for the system and its performers in the prison. Anyway, the execution was successful as Delacroix is dead. The event was so sorrowful that the witness of that execution, the ones who vomited on the floor, would prefer to rather distance themselves similar to society as a whole when it comes to the topic of sentenced persons and particularly murderers.
The movie does not end with the execution of John Coffey as it may seem to be logical. The viewer has to face even more doubts and considerations seeing the scenes with the elderly Paul Edgecombe, when he reveals his age to an old lady and shows her Mister Jingles, a mouse still alive in the late 1990s. The image of the elderly protagonist bears a portion of visual references and symbolism. With obvious parallel to his former work, he is now himself kept in a state institution, which he should not leave without a permit. Paul lives, eats, sleeps, and watches television on schedule next to dozens of other elderlies. The short walk is the most essential part of his day. The old people’s home has its workers, who keep discipline and order, although the movie lacks a villain character of a mean attendant, an evident reference to Percy Whetmore. In a narrow sense, the staff of this institution take the everyday death here for granted and their own closeness to the condemned old people, whom they escort to their own Green miles to leave this world. It is even more remarkable that the director Frank Darabont uses the same green color for the floor as was in Block E, thus a clue to the fact that the old people’s house is another Mile.
They usually call death row the Last Mile, but we called ours the Green Mile, because the floor was the color of faded limes. We had the electric chair then. Old Sparky, we called it.
The theme of death is omnipresent both in King’s novel and in Darabont’s adaptation, and in both institutions: Block E and old people’s house are the evident metaphor for the ‘Green mile’: the last journey, inevitable for all of us. One man, like John Coffey, is ‘lucky’ to walk those last steps surrounded by friends, and another like Paul Edgecombe is on his way out in solitude. It is likely that once he would finally die, some of his descendants would pay the last tribute and that is all. With an evident parallel to the condemned prisoners, who used to recall their best moments in life before death, Paul brings the memories of his wife and friends to life. The old movie provokes both sweet nostalgia and pain when he once again recalls the execution of John Coffey. As Paul sees it, his unnaturally long life is the negative reward, a kind of curse for not keeping a miracle safe and for consciously sending an innocent man to the electric chair. Edgecombe has already outlived those people he loved and respected for decades and he has no idea how many years he would have to walk this planet, particularly with a reference to Mister Jingles’ long mouse life. It is essential to understand that Paul lives in the old people’s house and steadily witnesses the passing away of people he knows and even to whom he opened his mind and heart like Elaine.
While Paul Edgecombe himself regards his long life as a vengeance, in fact, it is more like a blessing. Throughout the story John Coffey requited to ‘bad’ people according to their deserts: Percey Whetmore and Wild Bill were an open book to John after one touch. Along with that, Coffey used to help ‘good’ people and animals, those who were worthy of this help. Mister Jingles would never survive Percy’s attack without the blessing touch of John Coffey, as well as Melinda Moores who were on the edge of dying of a tumor. John cured Paul Edgecombe of the infection because he knew that the chief officer is a ‘good’ person, even considering his job of performing death. Amid their first encounter in the cell, John suggests his hand to Paul and after the shaking, probably his usual means to see people, Coffey shakes his head pacifically. John changes the lives of the other prison guards when they abandon Block E after his execution. Coffeys regards Paul as a good person, whose long life would definitely change the lives of other people for good, though without a recovering touch. Paul has no power to see the past of the other people he touches, but he lives long enough to pay the highest regard to friendship and love and the value of the life of each person. In contrast to the cruelty of the world, which John suffered all his life, he gave a part of his gift to a person, who would live more consciously than most. It is highly likely that those young criminals with whom Brutus and Paul worked after the Mile, would live into respectful men and pass the gift of good deeds to others. For that matter, Paul is afflicted by his gift similar to the way John Coffey did and this is the blind side and not a curse.
On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me
why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That is was my job? My job? John, tell me what you want me to do. You want me to take you out of here? Just let you run away? See how far you can get?
Paul’s Green mile is not in waiting for his own end, but in painful anticipation of the death of other people around him, and in the preservation of the memory of good people and innocent victims. The way John Coffey felt anxious about being in no power to resurrect the Detterick girls, Paul would live to regret that he was unable to save John Coffey from death. He not only sent an innocent man to the electric chair but a man who cured him and granted Paul a kind of immortality, health, and long life, a man who became his friend and a person to be admired with. Summing up all the above, Paul’s gift is not only his long life and a chance to help others but a conscience. The Green mile is not just the last journey before death, but an ability to evaluate this road and yourself in it. We are who could fully change our lives, but it is essential to help other people and make the world a better place.
I think about all the people I’ve loved, now long gone. I think about my beautiful Jan, and how I lost her so many years ago. I think about all of us walking our own Green Mile, each in our own time. We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long…