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The Green Mile: A modern classic

6th September 2012

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Michael Clarke Duncan, in The Green Mile

Best known for his portrayal of gentle giant John Coffey in The Green Mile, actor Michael Clarke Duncan has died at the age of 54. TNS looks back at the film and what made it so iconic. 

The news of the star’s sudden death comes as a shock to fellow actors and fans alike. He’s known for his roles in Armageddon, Planet of the Apes and of course, perhaps most famously, as death row inmate Coffey.

Duncan took on the role in 1999, when director Frank Darabount chose to adapt Stephen King’s novel of the same name. This was Darabount’s second prison-centred movie, following The Shawshank Redemption, which he had directed five years earlier.

Set in the 1930s, The Green Mile is narrated by Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) in the style of a flashback, and he talks about his time working on death row, or as he and his colleagues renamed it, ‘the green mile’, for its faded lime green décor. The story centres on Edgecombe and his prison guard colleagues, as they deal with the different types of inmates on ‘the mile’. When 7ft tall John Coffey (Duncan) arrives on the mile, accused of child rape and murder, the guards are wary, but come to realise that not only is he a gentle giant, but he has a unique and remarkable gift – and could he even be innocent?

This film is undoubtedly a classic, mainly because it challenges the preconceptions that people had about race, and crime itself, during this period in America. Knowing that black people were widely seen as inferior citizens in the US during this time makes the audience more aware of Coffey’s resilience to the unfair fate he is dealt. It is this very quality in him that endears him to the audience and to Paul Edgecombe, the narrator.

Tom Hanks also delivers a sturdy and solemn performance as Edgecombe, which is sometimes dwarfed by the mystical elements surrounding Duncan’s character, and his loveable nature. Doug Hutchinson is ruthless as the ‘newbie’ prison guard, Percy Wetmore, constantly threatening the others with his ‘"friends in high places." David Morse is on hand though to provide some straight-faced wit and subtle humour to relieve the tension caused by conflicts, usually involving Percy.

Although the film can sometimes seem like a bit of a mental endurance, with a running time of 189 minutes, it undoubtedly deserves its reputation as a classic - and Michael Clarke Duncan as the silent and ultimately sacrificing Coffey is its focal point.


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