Green Mile, The (1999): Darabont’s Oscar-Nominated Prison Drama, Starring Tom Hanks, Michael Clark Duncan

With a box-office gross of 136.8 million, The Green Mile, Frank Darabont’s prison drama, is the most popular Stephen King screen adaptation and one of his few works that is not scary or horrifying.

Released in December, and toplined by star Tom Hanks, the Castle Rock production was inexplicably nominated for the Best Picture Oscar (see below).

While Frank Darabont received an Oscar nomination for his adapted screenplay, he was snubbed by the Academy’s Directors Branch. “The Green Mile was the only contender that didn’t score a Best Director; Spike Jonze must have taken his spot for the quirky and original, “Being John Malkovich.”

As E.W. put it, “The nomination is widely seen as an also-ran that barely snagged its nom in the first place.”

A mishmash of a sentimental movie with something for everyone, this period melodrama pretended to deal with bi issues like racism, spirituality, and death penalty, though most viewers remembered the image of mice that could perform magical tricks (I am not kidding).

This was Frank Darabont’s second adaptation of a Stephen King novella, five years after “The Shawshank Redemption,” which was also nominated for Best Picture and also deprived him of the directing nod.

Overextending its welcome by an hour (running time is 3 hours and 9 minutes), “The Green Mile” raised eyebrows when it received four nominations.

The movie contains some emotionally powerful moment, but it seems to be too pleased in conveying the brutality that’s prevalent in prison life.  It depicts in graphic detail various acts of punishment against individual prisoners as well as within the group of wardens.

In many respects, the movie comes across as a procedural portrait of “the highs and the lows” (literally) of spending long time in jail.   It’s a tough, restrictive life not just for the prisoners but also for their wardens and supervisors who need to be constantly and continuously on alert, because there’s no way of telling or anticipating “deviant” and ultra-violent conduct.

This may be the reason why the movie takes its time, with slow pacing, often dwelling on incidents and accidents with close-ups and intimate details.

The large, male-dominated ensemble, included some of the best actors in Hollywood, headed by Tom Hanks, David Morse, James Cromwell, Sam Rockwell, Barry Pepper, and Michael Clarke Duncan, who was the only thespian nominated.

Duncan played the most problematic role, John Coffey, an old-fashioned stereotypical role, known in literature as “the magic Negro.”  Dawn Mendez observed in Forbes magazine that Coffey is “saintly, nonthreatening black,” whose purpose in life is to solve a problem for or otherwise further the happiness of a white man.

Cast
Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb
Dabbs Greer as Old Paul
David Morse as Brutus “Brutal” Howell
Bonnie Hunt as Jan Edgecomb
Michael Clarke Duncan as John Coffey
James Cromwell as Warden Hal Moores
Michael Jeter as Eduard Delacroix
Graham Greene as Arlen Bitterbuck
Doug Hutchison as Percy Wetmore
Sam Rockwell as William “Wild Bill” Wharton
Barry Pepper as Dean Stanton
Jeffrey DeMunn as Harry Terwilliger
Patricia Clarkson as Melinda Moores
Harry Dean Stanton as Toot-Toot
Bill McKinney as Jack Van Hay
Brent Briscoe as Bill Dodge
Gary Sinise as Burt Hammersmith

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Picture, produced by David Valdez and Frank Darabont
Screenplay (Adapted): Frank Darabont
Supporting Actor: Michael Clarke Duncan
Sound: Robert J. Litt, Elliot Tyson, Michael Herbick, Willie D. Burton

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1999, “The Green Mile” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with Sam Mendes’ suburban serio-comedy “American Beauty,” which won,
Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules,” Michael Mann’s expose “The Insider,” and the supernatural thriller “The Sixth Sense.”

Credits

Warner (Castle Rock)

Narrative Structure:

The film unfolds in one length flashback, bookended by a prologue and epilogue set in the present time.

Prologue

At Louisiana-assisted living home in 1999, elderly retiree Paul Edgecomb becomes emotional while viewing on TV the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rigers musical, Top Hat. When his companion Elaine (Ellie) becomes concerned, Paul explains that the film reminded him of events he had witnessed as an officer at Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s death row, nicknamed “The Green Mile.”

Main Plot

Cut to 1935, when Paul is the Supervisor of Corrections Officers Brutus “Brutal” Howell, Dean Stanton, Harry Terwilliger, and Percy Wetmore, reporting to chief warden Hal Moores.

Percy, the nephew of the state governor’s wife, shows sadistic streak but flaunts family connections to avoid accountability; he is abusive towards prisoner Eduard “Del” Delacroix, breaking his fingers and killing his pet mouse Mr. Jingles.

Paul is introduced to John Coffey, a physically imposing but mild-mannered African-American man sentenced to death due to raping and murdering two white girls. He joins two other condemned convicts: Del, and Arlen Bitterbuck, the latter of whom is the first to be executed. Meanwhile, the officers are forced to deal with psychotic new inmate William “Wild Bill” Wharton, who frequently causes trouble by assaulting the officers and racially abusing John, forcing them to restrain him in the block’s padded cell .

After John heals Paul’s severe bladder infection by touching him and later resurrecting Mr. Jingles, Paul gradually realizes that John possesses a supernatural ability to heal others. Suspecting that John is endowed with the power to perform divine miracles, Paul doubts whether he is truly guilty of his crimes.

In exchange for resigning from the penitentiary and accepting a job at an insane asylum, Percy is allowed to oversee Del’s execution. At the execution, Percy deliberately avoids soaking the sponge used to conduct electricity to Del’s head, leading to Del suffering a gruesome and agonizing death, with John forced to feel Del’s pain as well. Paul and the other officers bind and gag Percy as punishment for his actions and force him to spend a night in the padded cell. While Percy is locked away, they secretly smuggle John out of the prison so that he can use his powers to heal Warden Moores’ wife Melinda of a brain tumor, saving her life. After Percy is released from the padded room, the others threaten to report him for his various acts of misconduct if his behavior continues.

John uses his powers to “release” Melinda’s affliction into Percy’s brain, causing Percy to shoot Wild Bill to death. Soon after, John reveals in a vision to Paul that Wild Bill was the true culprit of the crimes for which he was wrongfully condemned, releasing his supernatural energy into Paul in the process. Having suffered a mental breakdown, Percy is committed to the same insane asylum where he had planned to work after resigning from the prison.

Finally realizing that John is innocent, Paul is distraught at the thought of executing him, and offers to let him go free. John tells Paul that the execution would be an act of mercy, as he views the world as a cruel place, and is in constant pain from the suffering that people inflict upon each other. Mentioning that he has never seen a movie before, John watches Top Hat with the other officers as a last request. When executed later that night, he asks not to have a hood placed over his head, as he is afraid of the dark. The officers all watch in sadness, visibly holding back tears as Coffey is executed. Back in the present, Paul tells Elaine that John’s was the last execution that he and Brutal witnessed, as they both subsequently resigned from the prison and took jobs in the juvenile system.

Concluding his story, Paul reveals that Del’s mouse Mr. Jingles is still alive; having been blessed with supernaturally long life thanks to John’s healing touch. He also reveals that he himself is now 108 years old, having been 44 at the time of John’s execution. While Elaine sees Paul’s long life as another of John’s miracles, Paul speculates that it may be a divine punishment and that he has been condemned to linger on Earth and outlive all of his loved ones for killing John. Paul is later shown attending Elaine’s funeral, and muses on how much longer he has left to live.