2. The Green Mile
3.1. Arlen Bitterbuck
3.2. Eduard Delacroix
3.3. John Coffey
The thought of executing a person through electricity has its origin in the late 19th century. During that time technology developed very fast and people were fascinated by electricity. However, installing electrical items like street lights caused many fatal accidents. The number of deaths increased rapidly in the 1880s (Martschukat 2002, 86). Apparently the victims died within seconds without physical pain and visible marks of external forces on the bodies. Soon people thought that power generators might be useful for executions (ibid.). David Hill, Governor of New York, engaged a three- member committee to proof if electricity is suitable for executions (ibid., 87). After three years of research the result was that electrocutions caused a painless and instant death. It was seen as the most human and practical method to enforce the death penalty (ibid.).
The first electric chair was built in New York in 1888 (DPIC). Only two years later William Kemmler was the first person who got executed by electrocution in the US for murdering his common-law wife Tillie Ziegler (Martschukat 2002, 88). Even though the tests were successful, Kemmler’s electrocution in the Auburn Prison in New York occurred not to be as painless as it was supposed to be. His death on the electric chair took several minutes. His blood vessels burst and his hair and flesh got burnt underneath the electrodes (ibid., 91-92). Two reporters were allowed to witness the horrible electrocution and described it as an awful spectacle far worse than hanging (ibid., 91). It seemed that the invention of the electric chair failed. However, those responsible explained that Kemmler’s death took a longer amount of time due to the lack of organisation and the technological deficit of the generator (ibid., 92). Dr. Louis Balch, president of the New York health agency, said that Kemmler was unconscious with the first electric shock and he did not feel any pain so that many people thought that Kemmler’s execution with the electric chair was a full success (ibid.).
Even though there were oppositions and execution errors in the years later, the electric chair had been established in many other states. Altogether 26 states of the United States of America adopted the method of electrocution (ibid., 96).
Between the First and the Second World War many people were proponents of the death penalty and executions received strong encouragement during these years (ibid., 94). In the 1930s America reached the highest level of executions in history with 167 executions per year (DPIC). Over 4000 people have been executed on the electric chair until today (Dähne 2015).
In the late 1980s and the 1990s, the time Stephen King was working on his serial novels and movie ‘The Green Mile’, the newspapers reported of many execution errors comparable to Kemmler’s execution. Stephen King was presumably concerned by these horrible incidents so that these reports may have influenced his writing (WebUrbanist). The thought that this movie was made to enlighten and arouse the public, raises the question in which way these three executions in the movie resemble to authentic executions that took place over the years in the United States of America. To respond to this question this paper will give a summary of the movie ‘The Green Mile’ followed by descriptions of the three execution scenes. In the last part the three executions will be compared to real executions that took place in the USA and are discussed with regard to how accurate they are to reality.
2. The Green Mile
In 1999 Stephen King published a movie called ‘The Green Mile’, directed by Frank Darabont. It is based on his serial novel prison drama published in 1996 (TV Tropes). The movie is told in a flashback from an elder man named Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks). He lives in a nursing home and suffers of bad nightmares. One day he talks to his girlfriend about his bad experiences which lead to the movie. He tells her about the time he was working as a lead guard of ‘Block E’, the death row of the Cold-Mountain- Prison in Louisiana in 1935. Together with his colleagues his job was to watch death row inmates. They had to keep them calm and to walk them down the corridor of green linoleum floor giving the movie the title ‘The Green Mile’. The corridor leads to the execution chamber locating the electric chair called ‘Old Sparky’. One day a huge muscular black man named John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) arrives. He is sentenced to death for raping and killing two little girls. During Coffey’s time in prison two other inmates, Arlen Bitterbuck (Graham Greene) and Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), get executed by electric chair. Coffey turns out to be a gentle giant with magical powers. He cures Edgecomb from his painful urethritis, the director’s wife from a brain tumor and saves the life of Mr. Jingles, a little mouse another inmate took in. As Coffey’s innocence cannot be proved, he gets executed by the electric chair. The time Edgecomb spend with Coffey changes his life and the way he thinks about executions. As a result he never executed a person again (The Green Mile).
3.1. Arlen Bitterbuck
The first execution the viewer gets to see is the execution of Arlen Bitterbuck. He is a Washita Cherokee, sentenced to death by electric chair. In the first scene of the execution Bitterbuck sits in his cell and speaks to Edgecomb about the best time of his life while he gets the top of his head shaved. Close-up shots show the faces so the viewer can see that Bitterbuck is sad but calm when he speaks. Edgecomb listens quietly and melancholic music underlines the touching moment. An inserted scene reveals how witnesses sit down in the execution chamber to attend the execution. Back at the cell, Brutus Howell (David Morse) appears and checks his pocket watch. The music changes to a quiet dynamic one and an extreme close-up shot of Howell’s watch makes clear that it is time to go (The Green Mile).
The music stops with the next scene which shows the execution chamber where Bitterbuck is already strapped on the chair. Howell soaks the sponge in a bucket with water and places it on Bitterbuck’s head. He gets the cap strapped on and the electrodes installed. Howell stands before Bitterbuck and pronounces that an electric current will pass through his body until he is dead. He has a look to the watch and has to wait for about ten seconds until he can give the signal to turn on the generator. Many close-up shots of faces illustrate the tension, pressure and sadness of Edgecomb, Howell and Bitterbuck. Just before the power gets turned on, the camera zooms in from a low angle towards the chair and further to Bitterbuck’s face. The chair and Bitterbuck appear to be huge and the viewer can see that something bad is going to happen. The extreme close- up shot and ticking sound of the watch and the nervous deep breaths Bitterbuck takes, emphasises the tensions, fears and nervousness in the room (ibid.).
After the time is over the power turns on and Bitterbuck cramps and rears his head back to the backrest. An extreme close up on Bitterbuck’s head shows how the smoke is coming out underneath the cap on his head. In addition, a squeaking and hissing sound can be heard. During the execution the camera shows some faces of witnesses and how some of them look down. After about twenty seconds the generator gets turned off again and Bitterbuck leans forward unconsciously. The doctor goes towards the chair and checks for a heartbeat but shakes his head. The generator gets turned on again to finalise his death. The scene ends after about five seconds (ibid.).
Altogether, continuous editing and medium shots give the viewer the feeling of a relatively quiet and common execution.
3.2. Eduard Delacroix
The second execution is the electrocution of Eduard Delacroix who is a cajun arsonist and murderer. The first scene starts with an establishing shot and shows the building at night while a storm brews with rain, thunder and lightning. The music is dark and dramatic so the viewer can guess that something bad is going to happen. In the next scene a long shot pictures how Edgecomb and his colleagues stand in front of Delacroix’s cell to pick him up. There is no music played during the scene when Delacroix has to step out of his cell (The Green Mile).
A calm melody starts when he says his goodbyes. Thereafter, a tracking overhead shot shows how Delacroix and the prison guards walk down ‘The Green Mile’.
In the next scene the camera tilts down showing the execution chamber, the electric chair and the waiting witnesses. A quiet dramatic music is played when Delacroix enters the execution chamber. While entering the room he stops frightened until Edgecomb leads him to the chair. He sits down on the chair and gets strapped to it. Close-up shots show the expressions on the faces of Delacroix, Edgecomb and Howell and an extreme close-up shot shows how the straps and electrodes are put on.
The music stops and Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) steps forward to pronounce the judgement. Another close-up shot of Delacroix’s face shows his sadness and fears. With tears in his eyes Delacroix says that he is sorry for what he did. He looks down and the prison guard rolls the black hood over Delacroix’s head (ibid.).
Close-up shots show how Wetmore bends down pretending to soak the sponge in water. He places it on the head and straps on the cap. A shot from a high angle shows the dry floor. The camera position changes to a low angle and shows Edgecomb noticing the dry floor. Dark music starts when he concludes that Wetmore did not soak the sponge. Edgecomb knows that a dry sponge breaks the flow of electric current to the brain preventing an immediate death. Before Edgecomb can intervene, Wetmore gives the signal to turn on the generator.
While Delacroix starts screaming, close-up shots show the faces of Edgecomb and Howell looking at each other. The music gets more dramatic when the camera pans left and tracks Edgecomb walking quickly to Howell to tell him that the sponge is dry.
- Quote paper
- Merle Blunk (Author), 2015, The Authenticity of Execution Scenes portrayed in „The Green Mile“, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/464085