TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Horton Foote (Novel: Harper Lee)
Gregory Peck, John Megna, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix, Collin Wilcox, James Anderson, Alice Ghostley, Robert Duvall, William Windom, Crahan Denton, Richard Hale
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A young girl discovers the power of conviction and the sanctity of the truth as she watches her father fight for the life of a poor black man on trial for a murder he didn’t commit during a time when blacks were hated and treated like third-class citizens in many parts of the deep South. To Kill a Mockingbird is a literary classic that is now taught in most schools across the country. In 1962, it became a major motion picture starring Gregory Peck.
Peck’s performance in Mockinbird is rightfully considered one of the finest in screen history. It’s not that the performance is any tour de force of yelling, screaming or crying. It’s a simple, controlled performance of passion and restraint. Peck portrays Atticus Finch, a poor Southern lawyer who lives alone with his two children Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford) years after the death of his wife and their mother. The film focuses its first half establishing Scout and Jem as loving, if rambunctious, children who love their father very much. They resist the limited control he places on them, but always find themselves in danger after disobeying him, not from his hand, but from the negative forces in the world around them.
The middle portion of the film concerns itself with the trial of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) a partially invalided black man accused of raping a lonely white woman, Mayelle Ewell (Collin Wilcox) who threw herself on him and was then soundly beaten by her father Bob (James Anderson) after he caught her. Although Atticus attempts to bring the discrepancies in the Ewells’ stories to the forefront of the trial, the all-white jury comes down with a verdict of guilty. The film ends with Scout and Jem returning from a school performance through the darkened woods where a mysterious man attacks and nearly kills Jem and tosses Scout to the ground before being killed by another unknown man.
Each of these episodes point towards the concept of social responsibility. Atticus tries to instill the notion in his kids, allowing them to watch the trial despite its lurid and salacious (for the 1960’s) details. He helps them understand that it’s not the color of a man’s skin, but the color of his character that makes the man. During one pivotal scene, after a mob tries to lynch Tom ahead of the trial, Atticus is sitting on the jail’s steps attempting to deal with another wayward crowd of concerned citizens have shown up with pitchforks in hand ready to carry out the task they feel is needed. While Atticus stands tall against them, his children, sensing their father’s impending danger, thrust through the crowd to help him. And although they do not quite understand the gravity of the situation, their compassion shames the crowd into dispersing. It’s a poignant scene that exemplifies the film’s theme.
Then, at the end of the film when faced with the decision of what to do with the man who committed murder to protect the children, it is Scout who initially stays her father’s hand and encourages to allow a man who was merely acting to protect avoid being killed himself over his overzealous and brave act. It is the key point of the film where Scout employs the very lessons she’s learned from her noble father.
Director Robert Mulligan never made another movie of the caliber of To Kill a Mockingbird. That’s not to belittle his success with the film as he went on to direct three popular Oscar-nominated films Love with a Proper Stranger, Inside Daisy Clover and Summer of ’42. Once you’ve reached a pinnacle like Mockingbird, it’s hard to live up to it. The success of Mockingbird comes down not only to Peck’s astonishing performance, but to the unquestionably great screenplay by Horton Foote.
Foote wrote for stage and screen, both big and small, but mostly for the stage. Yet, in 1962, his screenplay for To Kill a Mockingbird won him a richly deserved Oscar. To compact a story as broad and To Kill a Mockingbird takes a measure of patience, a modicum of restraint and an eye for the important elements. By shifting the focus from Scout as primary protagonist to one where she shares responsibilities enables the film to tackle more socially relevant topics along the way. That’s not to say that Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel doesn’t deserve some credit for it, but to focus so heavily on that aspect during a period where racial tensions were high was the right decision. What is presented here is not only a clear picture of the issues facing 1960’s Americans, but one that gave them direction in how to treat one another regardless of color. It pointed to backwards and outdated opinions that had influenced judicial proceedings and gave a voice to many who could see the vanity and dangerousness of many situations who couldn’t stand up for fear of persecution. Atticus became a role-model for a new generation of conscientious humanists and may have indirectly contributed to the Free Love movement of the late ’60’s and early ’70s.
To Kill a Mockinbird is as important a film to history as Citizen Kane or Casablanca. And although it doesn’t have the groundbreaking style or influence that those earlier films possessed, it still gives a solid framework for future filmmakers on how to make a human drama feel human. And a humanist like Peck, who made Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1947 to combat segregation against American Jews, would forever be linked to a performance that should be held up as a model for parents and teachers who must teach our children responsibility, self-reliance and the value of finding the difference between right and wrong and living toward the common good of all people.
April 17, 2011