The Walls Don’t Come Tumbling Down

Went back to work yesterday following a much needed week off. Yep. *Sigh* Listening to a podcast whilst waiting to go on duty and one of the two people in it asked the other what their favourite movie of all time was.
The answer was Pride and Prejudice. With Kiera Knightly. Not a bad choice. The duo, both American, even commented on the English version with Colin Firth, “bad teeth and all”. Which has always seemed odd to me; you see Brits are recognised globally for having horrific teeth, my own fitting nicely into that category as I’ve had more metal in my mouth than Robocop, and bad teeth does tend to run in our family anyhow. But at the same time many American celebrities harp about “keeping it real” and remembering where you can from, while at the same time sporting a full grill of braced and whitened enamel. Yep, you got the reality part of real down pat, obviously.

But envy aside it made me think about my own favourite movie of all time. And why.

And strangely I think it’s still Michael Mann’s “The Jericho Mile”.
Odd choice. That is if anyone reading this has even HEARD of this movie. It’s a TV movie from 1979, Mann’s debut and won sack loads of Emmys, gave Mann over 20 job opportunities and gave him the kudos to start working on Miami Vice.
It’s a simple story in itself, the main character Raine Murphy is serving a life sentence in Folsom for murder and spends his time running the scratch-built convict circle in the main yard of the prison. Clocked one day by accident by a prison sportswriter it’s discovered he’s running close to a 4 minute mile, which still is an impressive feat, one made even more impressive by the conditions he’s running it in.
Mann says he got the idea from reading a prison newspaper one day and reading how everyone in the sports section was declared a winner. The rationale for such an approach being one of practicality; would you write in an open newspaper that one team or gang was a loser? The reporters, convicts themselves, knew better.
Another, possibly random fact of inspiration was the recent tragic death of Steve Prefontaine, a Californian distance runner who had recently died in a car crash at the age of 24 in 1975. The physical similarities are there, both men sporting the lean, hollow-cheeked look of the distance runners of the time, together with the shaggy haired look made popular by some West coast men of the era.

Convinced by the prison psychiatrist to run to help both himself and the public opinion of prisons in general Raine agrees and is soon training for the Olympic trials. Meanwhile his friend Styles, an African American finds himself caught between the prisons’ Aryan Nation and the minority factions, including the Panthers and ends up getting shanked by the Nation when a drug deal he agrees to goes wrong. Raine is devastated and uses his leverage with the prison hierarchy to get revenge, which he does but incurs the wrath, and a beating, by the Panthers leader on account of misinformation.
Anyway, in the end Raine runs in the trials, beating Frank Davies, supposedly the best runner in the country. But four days before he’s due to compete in the nationals in LA the State Board intervene to make sure he’s contrite for his crime, that of murder, and is rehabilitated enough to be permitted to run.
At the meeting Raine sees right through the Head of the Board, whose mind is predicated never to allow him to run, for whatever the reason. Calling him “a snake, who wouldn’t last ten minutes on the yard” Rain is sent back to prison, the dreams of the Moscow Olympics ruined.
The final scene is powerful. Overhearing the results of the race he would’ve competed in and the success of Davies and his time Raine runs the mile with the whole prison watching, stopwatch in hand. When he finishes they check the time and declare it faster than Davies’, and with everyone cheering Raine hurls the watch against the prison wall, shattering it to pieces as the credits roll.

Not exactly Mr. Darcy in a lake is it?

So why do I rate a movie that has no happy ending, no empowering female figure, no successful, albeit contrived Hollywood, battle for love and acceptance as my number one movie ever?
It’s something that many of my friends have often asked me, but I feel that they’ve never really waited for the answer. Primarily because the answer can’t be easily snipped down into a single sentence sound bite; it has layers, like onions and all other good things in life. There’s also a fair degree of grey morality in the movie too. And while the 70’s had that in spades in the decade’s gems such as The Godfather and All the President’s Men, the concept was waning, people had gotten sick of being lied to by everyone they trusted, be it governmental or within their own families. They wanted the truth or lies, the Darth Vader or the Luke Skywalker, not the person straddling the two.

I like The Jericho Mile because of the humanity. Raine is a convicted murderer. In prison for life (we assume until he dies though it’s never actually defined either way) but we learn through his sessions with the prison psychiatrist that his victim was his own father, whom Raine shot to death after he walks in to find the older man yet again beating his 14 year old stepsister.
Yet he admits to loving the man. And describes a poignant scene where his dad had him up on his shoulders for a day out at Ocean Park, and did all the things that fathers do with their sons, and you can tell that his feelings for the man are genuine, the remorse he feels for his death is honest. When the psychiatrist asks if he ever tried to get help for his father, who by this time we understand was now an alcoholic, Raine scoffs that “We didn’t have the money for the shrinks and the big fancy couches”.
Which makes it all the more tragic in the fact that Raine didn’t do anything wrong. His family just didn’t get the breaks, and America squeezed them as a result.

My own father was a factory man, steelworker, truck driver, he’s still alive and we have a good relationship now. Though I might have written earlier that his lack of praise for my endeavours as a child has left me uncomfortable when I am praised; I’d rather have criticism, praise is more uncomfortable to handle. We fought when I was a teenager, never physically but it almost got to that point once, fortunately he’d been through his alcoholic phase early in life and didn’t have to burden his family with it, which was a relief. I’m grateful for small mercies, no doubt.

The other big point of the movie is the anti-racism. Prison life then, and probably now, still functions on cliques and most of them are based on race. The fact that Raine and Styles run together puts a lot of noses out of joint, the disbelief that they are choosing to converse and interact outside of the cell block (they share adjacent cells) apparent particularly to the Panthers who find this friendship asinine. In the end when Styles is killed and Raine is implemented the head of the Panthers beats Raine bloody, only to figure out that he’s been played and Raine had nothing to do with the crime. This culminates with a uniting of the Panthers and the Mexican gang against the Aryans in a yard fight which they decidedly win. And the prison unites behind Raine following his success at the trials held inside the walls. But sadly when Raine is prevented from running the old barriers return, obviously when a white convict goes to use the weight equipment he’s told “You’re not allowed in here!” by the Panthers, an indication that the divisions are back in place, that without a common interest there is nothing left to maintain the unity.
People are different but an individual can find friendship anywhere. I don’t know why that is. I guess the mix of history and learned behaviour can be too strong for some. Or maybe like just finds its way to like? We like the company of our own more than the company of strangers? It’s something we have to work on as a species.

I think finally the ending is important. Raine runs for himself. He runs for all the other convicts who had faith in him. In one scene virtually the entire prison canteen comes to wish him good luck or give him more food, the table finally piled with it, Raine pillowing his head in his hands at this gesture of support, the weight of their hope something he’s unfamiliar with, clearly burdened with doubt, questioning that he can deliver what they all want. But the final run is for the population inside the walls of Folsom only. And it’s a singular gesture that will never be repeated. You never know if Raine runs again, you guess that he does, the concept of a running track inside a prison, used by those confined within the walls an example of the inverted reality Raine and the others find themselves in.
The actual reality is worse. The head of the State Board makes up his mind before breakfast that Raine was not running in the trials. Even if Raine had genuflected and made assurances he would be faithful to the security at the event you could tell from the first seconds of the character appearing on screen that the man’s mind was set before the meeting was ever scheduled.

Actual reality runs upon perception. The head of the Board was afraid that if Raine was allowed to run he would bring disrepute to the event causing a loss of sponsorship by the corporations.
Whenever you apply for a job in the UK you have to tick the box to say if you have a criminal record or not, identical to the USA. If you disclose does that automatically disqualify you from the job? The job market being so tight these days that any blip on your character, even something as minor as parking ticket offenses (it’s a crime, you can go to prison for it) can deny you anything above minimum wage and manual labour. But if you hide the fact and the employer finds out?
The individual is at risk either way. The conservative approach would be a lecture on avoiding breaking the law in the first place. Fine. But with that are you saying that Raine was in the wrong at intervening in the beating of his stepdaughter by his father? Wrong to murder? Of course. Wrong to intervene? Of course not.

The world is not black and white in its morality. But society strives to make it so. Because it has no other option at maintaining the order of things and the result is the margins suffer. It is a lesson the world refuses to address, let alone learn. I try to see the good in people; I think this film was the catalyst for that belief, way back in 1997 when I found it in a Walmart (Asda) bargain-bin. The journey was the best bit, not the destination, never obtained and as tangible as sunlight. We always remember the journeys. Even when they lead nowhere.


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