[Originally published February 1, 2008]
For many years, I’ve been wanting to track down an obscure running movie called “The Jericho Mile.” A couple of weeks ago, I finally located and ordered a DVD of this 1979 made-for-American-TV movie. I didn’t realize until it arrived that the DVD was produced in Holland and had Dutch subtitles. More about that later. Anyway, a few days ago I watched the movie, and here’s my review.
The movie was made in 1979 and tells the story of Larry “Rain” Murphy (Peter Strauss), a man serving a life sentence at Folsom Prison. (The movie was shot on location at the prison.) To make his captivity bearable, Murphy spends every second of his 20 minutes of daily exercise time running, or rather warming up, running very fast for a mile, and then cooling down. As other inmates play dominoes, lift weights, or hang out, Murphy flies around the rough, uneven perimeter of the exercise yard. His antics have earned him the nickname “Lickety-split.” The inmate who has the cell next to him sometimes joins him for part of his run, but can’t keep up for more than a few laps of the yard. Other than this small taste of company, Murphy hardly talks to anyone and makes no attempt to “fit in” to the complex hierarchical group structure of life in the prison.
Although he is considered a nut case by most of the other inmates, Murphy attracts the attention of the warden who discovers to his astonishment that Murphy is running world-class times there inside the prison walls. Seeing the opportunity of transforming Murphy into a positive example for the rest of the prison population, the warden attempts to get Murphy qualified to run in the national championships, perhaps to qualify for the Olympics. The warden’s first step is to bring in a coach, and then to give Murphy freedom to train on the roads and hills outside the prison walls. At first, Murphy is skeptical. “Are you going to teach me how to run, professor?” he sneers at the coach. But the coach isn’t put off, and sees in Murphy the raw talent that he (the coach) never had. Slowly, Murphy begins to buy in to the longer, harder training.
At this point, you might be thinking this is a remake of “Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” and maybe on some level it is, but then the movie takes a more gritty turn.
Murphy’s only friend at the prison becomes the unwitting pawn in a power struggle between the white inmates and black inmates. There is a violent conflict, and when Murphy takes a stand, he becomes the target of the leader of the white inmates, the vile Dr. D. (played by Brian Dannehy).
Things escalate to a crisis: the AAU refuses permission for Murphy to race outside the prison, seemingly killing his only chance to qualify for the national championships. The warden decides to build a track INSIDE the prison walls, and to enlist the prison population to build the track. Doctor D. boycotts the work, and threatens anyone who crosses his picket line. Murphy continues to train, not knowing if he’ll even get a chance to run.
It would be irresponsible for me to give away the ending, or describe the final twists and turns of the plot. I will say that the best thing about the movie is the realism of the prison environment and dialog (and it’s amusing to see how “jive suckah” translates into Dutch).
The first time I watched it, I was upset that the running scenes are shot on a tiny oval, far smaller than standard 400m track. It’s disconcerting to see Murphy flying around these tight little curves on a track that could fit in your average playground, but maybe that was intentional, to underscore how confined his existence is within the prison walls. Mostly, the running sequences aren’t bad, and the realism of the rest of the movie makes up for the somewhat idealized version of Murphy’s final “race” (YouTube clip below, if you don’t mind knowing the ending).
The title comes from the old spiritual “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” and although at the end of the movie the physical walls don’t come tumblin’ down, other barriers have been smashed.