Great Escape, Green Mile

The Great Escape (1963) **** In one of the first of the multi-superstar war films (following on the heels of the biggest one, The Longest Day), The Great Escape follows the planning and execution of a massive escape attempt from a Nazi POW camp during World War II by Allied prisoners. The determination of these men and the absolute thoroughness of their plan is what’s on center stage here. Led by Richard Attenborough (back when he was just an actor, not an Academy award-winning director), the men decide to tunnel out of the camp in three places – this way, if one tunnel is discovered by the Germans, the other two tunnels will still be viable options.

Attenborough’s not the big star here, though; that honor goes to the young Steve McQueen, with that rebellious smile and blonde locks going a long way toward cementing his own movie superstardom. Oh, and James Garner, and Charles Bronson as a Russian (!), James Coburn, and even Donald Pleasance as a myopic forger. Who will survive the escape? And what will happen to those who do once they’ve left the walls of the prison?

If you’re a fan of action, this is a prime movie for you. If you’re a fan of suspense, this is also a prime movie for you. Above all, if you’re a fan of excellent writing, acting, and direction (by John Sturges), then you’ll enjoy this 3-hour opus.

The Green Mile (1999) *** So what we have here is a movie set in a prison in the 1930s involving a group of death-row guards, a childlike supposed child-killer who wants the light left on at night, and a tiny mouse. No, it’s not “Stuart Little” for the taxpaying set, it’s the latest movie adapted from a Stephen King story. Specifically, “The Green Mile” comes from the only King story so far to be presented to the public in serial form; that is, one chapter at a time was published in separate short books.

Tom Hanks is Paul Edgecomb, the leader of the guards, already a hardened veteran of the block. His kingdom is The Green Mile, the death-row area of the prison, so named because of the color of the tile that the prisoners must walk on their way to the electric chair. One of Paul’s newest prisoners is a massive black man named John Coffey, who seems completely out of place except for his size; Paul immediately senses no violence in the man.

The mouse is the pet of the Mile and spends most of his time in the company of one of the block’s senior prisoners, Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter). The mouse himself isn’t completely relevant to the plot, but his presence does serve to humanize the prisoners and to act as a bookend for the entire story, told in flashback by Paul many years later. There are many subplots, all of them surrounding Paul and his crew as they deal with John Coffey and the other prisoners, but none of them seems incongruous, and that’s a major asset to a film like this. Running three hours, it’s easy to mix in multiple plot lines, of course, but you don’t want your audience falling asleep on you. Frank Darabont, who helmed that other Stephen King prison story (“The Shawshank Redemption”), does an extraordinary job selecting just the right camera angles and keeping the pace of the film consistent. This, along with “Shawshank,” is a rare bird: a film adapted from a Stephen King story that actually works well on the screen. Most of the King adaptations out there – and there have been a LOT! – have been lackluster and lacking. King’s greatest quality as a writer is his exposition and character development, and most films don’t have the time or patience to carry that quality over. Both of Darabont’s do.

As for the cast, there are no slackers. Hanks is gritty and convincing in the lead, and his fine support includes David Morse as a fellow guard and James Cromwell as the prison’s warden. All acquit themselves wonderfully, allowing the viewer to be drawn into the story effortlessly.


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