With the Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library planning a brown bag discussion next week for Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I decided to take a look at the 1962 film adaptation for this week’s review.
Like so many of you I’m sure, few films are etched more indelibly in my mind than “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s one of those films that, if you mention it in a crowded room, everyone has to pipe in with their two cents. It seems that, like “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “The Wizard of Oz,” there are very few Americans that haven’t seen the film or at least read the book on which it is based. It’s become an American standard, something endemic to our cultural life and understanding. If you doubt this, listen to the reaction in the same crowded room when someone says they haven’t read the book or seen the movie. You’d think they had admitted to committing some horrible crime.
But why have the film and book been embraced through the generations? A lot of it has to do with exposure; the book is still assigned quite a bit in elementary schools, with a screening of the film often concluding a class’s discussion. When you talk to people about the film, they often mention having seen it for the first time at a very young age. It seems like a vivid childhood memory for most Americans. When they discuss it, they seem to have as much nostalgia for an early time in their lives as they do appreciation for the film or Lee’s novel.
I think the fact that so many of us read the book or see the film as children influences our appreciation of the story, which follows the summertime adventures of a trio of Southern children. Like in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the children encounter a wide array of quirky Southern characters and mythology, pondering the mysteries of the world around them. The story is told from the childrens’ point of view, and as in most great stories about kids, the world of the film seems just a little bigger, scarier and more exciting than anything you would find in real life. Reading the book or seeing the film as a child, it’s hard not to identify with these kids; they have the exciting childhood that so many of us wish we had.
But it would be a mistake to think of “To Kill a Mockingbird” only as a child’s story. There is a maturity to the storytelling here, a recognition of the evils of the surrounding world as seen from a child’s point of view. The child characters don’t just have rowdy summertime fun, but see the social injustices of racism and child abuse played out before their eyes. The film, set in Alabama in 1932, was released in 1962 when many of the evils of Southern racism were still in full force. Just as America would start to mature in subsequent years, the child characters in the film grow as well, learning important lessons about both man’s hatred and his ability to look beyond racial boundaries,
The film works so well because its director, Robert Mulligan, is able to strike such a wonderful balance between the whimsical scenes of childhood adventure and the story’s more dramatic themes. Nothing feels out of place in this film, and Mulligan finds a tone that is equal parts fun, strange and reflective. He is helped by Gregory Peck’s great performance as Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer and father who serves as the story’s moral compass. Finch’s two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) power the film’s narrative, but Peck’s performance gives it dramatic gravity. Just as Mulligan masters the film’s tone, Peck strikes just the right note for its central character.
As the film opens, Finch is raising his two children by himself after the death of his wife, helped by the family’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). The film takes place over a couple of summers in the children’s lives. Scout and Jem are curious types who roam freely through their
neighborhood, joined by their friend, Dill (John Megna), who visits each summer.
They spend most of their time puzzling over the mysteries of their neighborhood and its many colorful characters; there’s Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White), the mean old lady who lives on the corner and who they say keeps an old Confederate pistol under her shawl; Nathan Radley (Richard Hale), the strange old man who lives in the spooky house on the corner; and his son, Boo (Robert Duvall), who they say lived in a mental institution before his father decided to bring him home. Boo never comes out of the house, and the film builds him up as a boogeyman figure in the kids’ minds.
Running parallel to the kids’ adventures is the story of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a young black man who has been accused of raping a white woman on a nearby farm. Finch agrees to defend him. The case pours out in one long courtroom sequence in the middle of the film, where Finch handles the case expertly. The prosecution’s case hinges completely on the testimony of the victim (Collin Wilcox), whose account of the events is contradicted by Robinson and all other evidence. The young man is clearly innocent, but the facts run counter to the racism of the court.
The children sneak into the courtroom for the trial, and watch as injustice plays itself out. They also watch their father, Finch, deliver an inspiring address to the court in his closing statement. To Finch, the facts are clear and the conclusion is more than obvious, but he knows that his logic is wasted on the all white jury. The speech is one of the great courtroom speeches in film history, delivered by Peck with intelligence and conviction. But there is great frustration in his words as well — one of Peck’s great discoveries in the scene is that, no matter what he says, he knows his client is doomed.
Peck always said Atticus Finch was his favorite character he ever played, the closest, he said, to “the real me.” There is an ease to the performance, an effortlessness that makes the character feel authentic and real. Peck seems to be relishing the character, and his joy adds a layer of warmth to the scenes between Finch and his children. In the film’s more dramatic scenes, Peck is expert in the way he balances the character’s idealism and his frustration; a liberal-minded man, you can feel him beating his fists against an unfair world.
The film’s setting is wonderful to get lost in. Mulligan and his cinematographer, Russell Harlan, create an environment that is dark, dusty and just a little off; patches of vines hang down off of the neighborhood’s old houses with spooky old trees sitting on each street corner. They give the film a Southern Gothic mood that makes the whole setting feel haunted and strange.
It’s amazing how well the film holds up over the years. Today, I mostly enjoy watching Peck’s performance and the heedless adventures of Scout, Jem and Dill. It’s one of those rare films that always seems to work no matter how old you get. It accomplishes the rare feat of being entertaining while still leaving you with an extremely meaningful, relevant message.
Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.