Author Harper Lee based the book and the character on her own father, who was a lawyer in
during the early decades of the 20th century. He really did have a 1923 case where he defended a black man from unjust charges. Peck was able to meet with the father before filming, but unfortunately he did not live to see the movie released. Harper Lee gave Gregory Peck her father’s watch and chain in gratitude for the job he had done on the movie. Peck was wearing them when he went onstage to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor for this role. Alabama
The movie is seen through the eyes of six year old Scout Finch, the daughter of Atticus. She is played by Mary Badham in her screen debut. Badham would play a few other parts in the next couple of years, but much like Carrie Henn from Aliens (1986) she would “retire” from acting leaving a single great performance for everyone to talk about. She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, ironically losing to Patty Duke, another child actress. At the time, Badham was the youngest person ever nominated in the category.
Scout is a carefree child living in a small town in
during the 1930s. She has an older brother named Jem. Their mother has died, leaving Atticus a widower. Other than a strange man named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his screen debut) who scares all the kids, life is pretty simple for her. Scout starts to realize some things in her town are not perfect when her father is chosen to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. Alabama
Before the trial can even start a crowd forms to break Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) out of jail so that they can lynch him. Atticus learns of this from the Sheriff and he spends the night sitting in front of the cell, standing up to the entire crowd. It’s the appearance of Scout in the midst of all this that finally shames the crowd into backing down.
When the trial starts it is expected to be an open and shut case. The woman in question, Mayella Ewell, still shows signs of a beating. Her father, Bob Ewell, is one of the most racist men in the town and he wants blood. Actor James Anderson, who played Bob, got the part by telling the director, “I know this man”. The director didn’t ask too many questions because he didn’t want to know exactly what that meant. Anderson and Peters also were estranged during the filming, although Peters says he never did find out if it was because
truly didn’t like him, or if he didn’t want to get too close since their characters were antagonists. Anderson
Atticus intelligently establishes that Tom Robinson couldn’t have beaten Mayella. All that he is guilty of is helping her break up a piece of furniture and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. While it is never explicitly stated, Atticus shows that it is probably Mayella’s own father who beat her.
The trial is the biggest thing in town and everyone is there to watch. This includes the black citizens in the town. They are segregated to a second floor balcony looking over the main floor where the white citizens sit. Many years later there would be an homage to this scene in the 1998 film Pleasantville. All of the “colored people” in Pleasantville are sitting in a balcony during a trial of “one of their own”.
Atticus’ efforts are greatly appreciated by the black citizens. They don’t have money to pay him (he is defending Tom for free), but they do what they can. Atticus returns to his house to find food and baked goods on his porch. All of these are gifts from the grateful citizens for what he is doing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, his actions have angered many in the town, especially Bob Ewell. Threats start getting made and things come to a head with Scout and Jem being in danger. Help comes from the unlikeliest of sources.
In addition to making a great impression on Harper Lee, Gregory Peck also remained close with Mary Badham and Brock Peters for the rest of his life. Peters even gave the eulogy at Gregory Peck’s funeral. When Peters himself died it was pointed out that his work in To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the truly great roles for a black actor at that time.
Director Robert Mulligan would go on to do other movies involving children or adolescents like 1971’s Summer of ’42. (You can read my review of that here.) It’s fitting that his final movie was 1991’s The Man in the Moon, which is also a period film about a southern girl, this time played by Reese Witherspoon in her screen debut.
To Kill a Mockingbird would go on to receive eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Gregory Peck would win Best Actor in what he considered to be his favorite role of his career. The film would lose Best Picture, but when your competition is Lawrence of Arabia there is absolutely nothing to feel down about.
To Kill a Mockingbird has made a huge impact on people over the decades since it was released. When I was in high school we read the book and then saw the film. I’m not sure if this still happens. If it doesn’t then you owe it to yourself to both read the book and see the movie. It features a compelling story and one of the greatest characters ever put on film. I give this film my highest recommendation.
Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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