Whose Life Is It Anyway (1981) & Dead Man Walking (1995)

“Whose life is it Anyway” and “Dead Man Walking” are both films that deal with questions that have no easy answers.  In “Whose life is it Anyway,” Ken Harrison wants to be allowed to die and his story focuses on the issue of a patient’s right to die.  “Dead Man Walking” deals with Mike and his experience on death row.  Although both films deal with controversial issues,  “Whose Life is it Anyway” tries much harder than “Dead Man Walking” to instill a certain belief into the viewer’s mind.

“Whose Life is it Anyway” does several things to move Ken Harrison’s situation in life to a point where the audience is hoping at the end of the film that he is allowed to die.  The screenwriter removes any things from Harrison’s life that might make a viewer object to the taking of his life.  Harrision’s lover is conveniently written out in a single scene early in the film.  In another key scene, Harrison is presented with options for things he can do in his disabled state.  However, the screenwriter decides to quickly brush these options out of the viewers mind by having them presented by a character who is inexperienced at what they are doing and who ends up making Harrison’s other options look foolish.  Finally, those doctors and nurses that oppose Harrison’s desire to die are made to look cruel and not concerned about really caring for their patient’s needs.  As a viewer, any objections that you might have why Harrison shouldn’t kill himself are taken care of and it seems natural that he be allowed to die.

“Dead Man Walking” treats its issue with a better sense of balance.  We meet a man on death row who at first denies committing a crime, but later admits to murder.  It is impressive that the screenwriter, Tim Robbins, decided not to fall into a stereotypical trap of death row movies that show an innocent man being killed.  Mike was guilty as charged of the crime of murder and can’t use any innocence for audience sympathy.  Also, instead of showing just the story of a man dealing with his time on death row, Robbins exposes us to the pain that the family of the murdered teens is dealing with.  Their arguments over the loss they feel balance out nicely with the scenes of the loss of Mike to his own family.  Although the prison personnel and the state governor are shown in much the same cruel light that the doctors appear in “Whose Life,” the fact the Mike is, in the end, revealed to have killed lessens the viewer’s opinion to their earlier actions..

“Whose Life is it Anyway” gives us an extreme, ideal case in what would usually be a very complicated case of emotional winners and losers.  It gives us this case in such a heavy handed manner that they try to get the viewer to base their entire option of a patient’s right to die on their perfect example.  “Dead Man Walking” takes a more mature path by showing the viewer all aspects of a death row case and lets the viewer decide on their own how they feel about it.

D.S. Christensen
Latest posts by D.S. Christensen (see all)