Week 11: To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of many things. It is a portrait of racial intolerance, a tale about injustice, and a character study. Above all else, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about the loss of innocence.
It is the middle of the great depression. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) lives in Macomb, Alabama, with his two children. Jean Louise (Mary Badham) is six years old and goes by the nickname “Scout,” while ten year old Jem (Phillip Alford) loves his father but thinks he is kind of a dork. Atticus won’t play football with him, or allow him to have a gun. When Jem realizes that his father is actually the best shot in Macomb County, his jaw hits the floor; Atticus is not the type to brag.
The film begins with the two children meeting Dill Harris (John Megna), a seven year old boy that is staying with his aunt for the summer. Dill is an outspoken, habitual liar and when Scout asks him who his father is he cannot give a straight answer. The lesson of learning when to keep your mouth shut is one of the first of many in the film. The three children spent the majority of the opening scenes just being kids. They run around the neighborhood, play, bet each other, and tell stories about the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). Radley is the neighborhood recluse that has taken on the image of a mysterious boogeyman in the eyes of the town’s children.
It is clear that Atticus is a loving father. There is not a scene in which he is with the children that he does not spend teaching them a lesson of some sorts, or simply showing them love. There is a tender scene at the beginning of the film (one of Peck's best) that features Atticus tucking Scout in at night. They discuss his father’s pocket watch, and the items that Scout will inherit once she is older from her mother. As Atticus goes outside he sits on the swing and listens to his children talk about his dead wife. A singular tear appears in his eyes as he swings in the quiet night. This short scene is possibly one of the most beautiful moments in the film. The moment comes to an end quickly when the town sheriff comes to Atticus and asks him to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man that was recently arrested for raping and assaulting a white woman.
With Atticus’ decision to defend Tom Robinson, the central story begins to take place. The town is outraged at the situation. Many of Atticus’ supporters turn against him quickly once it becomes public knowledge that he is defending a black man. The father of the plaintiff, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) is the town drunk- a vile degenerate man who is clearly the villain of the picture from the moment he graces the screen. Ewell threatens Atticus and his family, while his children are picked on at school due to their father’s decisions.
Atticus shows solidarity. When Scout asks her father if he supports Niggers, Atticus looks at her and simply says what any decent parent would say in the situation- “Don’t say Niger, Scout.” Atticus tells Scout that it impossible to tell what a person is feeling until you get into that person’s skin and see things from their point of view. This is still a concept lost to many.
One of the best scenes involves Atticus staying up all night to sit in front of the town jail, where Tom Robinson is being held. The children hear him leave the house and ask Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), their housekeeper (and as close as they have to a mother) to stay the night. They sneak out and find him standing before a lynch mob, with his head held high. The mob wants to kill Tom Robinson, but Atticus will not budge. There is a sense that he will stand there even if it means his life. The children come to his immediate aid. He tells them to go home, but Scout starts recognizing and talking to the men in the mob. Many of them individuals she knows and loves in the community. The men grow silent, shame crosses their faces, and they leave. Atticus carries his children home. “There are a lot of ugly things in the world, son” Atticus tells Jem, “I wish I could keep them all from you.” Every parent in the audience immediately begins nodding their heads.
Of course there are courtroom scenes, as well as climaxes, twists, and resolutions. Peck gives one of the great orations in the history of film in his closing arguments to free Tom Robinson. It is clear Robinson is innocent. Atticus begs the jury to see reason, and to look past such superficial things as racial prejudices for the greater good of fighting injustice. The jury can’t do this. They find Tom Robinson guilty. The racism wins, but Atticus leaves the courtroom with his head held high. As the town’s African-American community, as well as his children, watch from the segregated balcony, they stand as he passes. It is a sign of deep respect. They have lost, yet they have nothing but deep respect for the man that could look past the color of their skin.
Has there been a more instantly recognized classic in the history of literature than Harper Lee’s novel? I doubt it. It is currently behind only the bible as the most widely read book in the world. Hundreds of thousands of high-school students read the book year after year. It is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of literature ever written. The film stands on its own as a classic. The Screenwriter, Horton Foote does make some changes to the script, such as limiting the Miss. Dubois character (the heroin use and language were deemed inappropriate for the film) but for the most part, the screenplay is an excellent summation of the novel. Foote won an Oscar for his work here, and while it was certainly warranted, one could wonder if the Academy wasn’t actually honoring Lee and her story.
The direction by Robert Mulligan is pragmatic and exact. There are no quick cuts, camera tricks, or illusions. The direction is simple and to the point, much like Lee’s novel. It is clear Mulligan just wants to give the story justice and let it play out on the screen.
The black and white cinematography from Russell Harlan is beautiful. I have a feeling that if the film had been shot in color, it would have certainly aged more as well. Instead, the print is crisp and sharp. The title sequence, played to Elmer Bernstein’s beautiful score, is one of the best title sequences I have ever seen.
Then there is Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch was recently named the greatest hero in American Film by the American Film Institute. I can think of no better choice. Peck’s portrayal of Finch is timeless. We get the impression that Atticus may be the best father we have ever seen. Men (at least, good men) strive to be like him. Peck embodies the character created by Lee effortlessly. It has been said by those that knew him, that Peck was Atticus Finch, always kind, just and decent. I get that impression as well. He is the most likable of actors.
Atticus Finch is more than just a fictional character- he is a symbol; a true hero. Finch, as well as Peck’s portrayal of him, has been the inspiration for countless individuals to practice law. The real lawyers, the great ones, frequently cite Finch as an inspiration. These are the people that go into law for the right reasons, not the paycheck.
Most importantly, Finch has been a role model to fathers for decades. I think To Kill a Mockingbird should be required viewing for every soon-to-be-dad. Growing up without a father in a small Kansas home, I had no doubts about who my ideal father figure would be- it was right there on the screen. Now as a parent, I know the type of father I aspire to be.
This is such a fine family film. It is simply important. Much has changed since the segregation and deep racism of the South. The values taught in the film have changed little. When Atticus explains to his children why he takes the case of Tom Robinson, his answer and clear- “If I didn’t take this case, I couldn’t hold my head up in this town.” When he explains the facts of life, even the ugly truths, to his children, everything he says is relatively simple, yet each syllable has resonance. This is the power of perception. Children see the film through the eyes of Scout and Jem, and are comforted by the fact that no matter what happens in the town, there is always Atticus to look out for them. As we see the film later in life, as adults, we step into the skin of Atticus- and wish we are as brave.
Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey
The Great Speech
Universal Pictures and Brentwood Productions present A Robert Mulligan Film. Screenplay by Horton Foote
Based upon the novel by Harper Lee. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Produced by Alan Pakula
Running Time- 2 hours, 10 minutes. Black and White. Not Rated- Suitable for All Audiences