To Kill A Mockingbird

Dir: Robert Mulligan, 1962. Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters. Classics.
To Kill A Mockingbird

One of the great American books, To Kill A Mockingbird, makes for one of the great American films. Horton Foote (Tender Mercies) compactly adapts Harper Lee’s dense semi-autobiographical novel. Now an adult, Scout Finch recounts two summers in her childhood during the Depression in a sleepy little Alabama town. She and her brother Jem befriend a boy named Dill (based on Lee’s lifelong friend, Truman Capote), while her father Atticus, a righteous lawyer (righteous, in an admirable way), defends a black man accused of rape. Scout learns many simple lessons and the film, with such simple qualities, packs a gentle emotional wallop.

This was 1962 disguised as the Depression. An innocent ‘62, pre-assignation of JFK and MLK; pre-Vietnam War making the front pages; pre-Black Panthers and "black power." When the naïve still believed that one crusading white man could potentially save a black man’s life. And though in the end Atticus doesn’t actually succeed (thematically it has something to do with why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird), it has enough of an impact on a child that she could grow up to be a great writer. Though in real life, unfortunately, Harper Lee would never write another book again, instead becoming Capote’s babysitter (Lee, along with Emily Bronte and John Kennedy Toole, would be one of the great one-hit wonders in literature history).

Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck’s signature performance. And even though as Scout and Jem, Mary Badham and Phillip Alford have more screen time and give really wonderful, lovely performances, it’s Peck’s soul that carries the film. This is the role the man was born to play (apparently the studio wanted Rock Hudson as Atticus; at first that sounds kinda goofy, but with a second thought, it might have worked). Peck, with his resonant voice and still movie-god looks which had evolved comfortably into middle age, comes off as the one sane white adult in an otherwise backwater world. He commands the screen when giving some powerhouse speeches in the courtroom defending his obviously innocent client, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). But Peck’s less showboating moments with his daughter are so moving, as when he explains to her about walking around in another person's skin to understand them. Those moments are aided by Bedham’s tomboy sweetness as Scout - this was obviously the role she was born to play as well.

After To Kill A Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan would continue to take on fairly respectable themes and scripts. He would cover similar Mockingbird territory with his last film in 1991, The Man On The Moon, forgettable except that a young Reese Witherspoon would impress in the adolescent Scout-ish lead role. Unfortunately, with the exception of the pretty good horny, coming of age flick, Summer Of ’42, he would never really connect with audiences again. And certainly not even close to the way Mockingbird does.

The kids in the film are fascinated with the legend of neighbor Boo Radley, a man-child locked away and now the standard boogeyman in the tales they spin. In one of the great "film debate cameos" ever, future legend Robert Duvall pops up in the end as Boo. It’s a wonderful moment of great power as Scout realizes that she too has compassion and Boo is not the monster she envisioned; perhaps he is the symbolic mockingbird. It’s a book and a movie so crammed with themes, but so beautifully placed, it’s not until it’s over that you realize all you have digested. Besides the obvious statements about racial injustice, Scout also confronts sexism and class issues (poor vs. middle class), and finally learns what Atticus meant when he tells her you have to walk around in someone else’s skin to understand them. It’s as relevant today as it was then and sometimes it’s good for all of us to relearn those lessons through the eyes of such a cool little girl.

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To Kill A Mockingbird won 3 Oscars: Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Black & White Set Direction, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional 5 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Mary Badham), Best Black & White Cinematography, and Best Original Score.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 23, 2010 1:15pm
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