Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Movie – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

You would think that a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that was also beloved by millions would easily be made into a movie.  Not so with To Kill a Mockingbird.  Studio execs asked, “Where’s the action?  Where’s the love story?”  When a decision was finally made to do a movie both Rock Hudson and Jimmy Stewart were considered for the lead role of Atticus Finch and both turned it down.  When Gregory Peck found out about the role he sat down and read the book in a single evening and then called the next day to say he would do it.  What Peck, and movie audiences, would understand is that this is one of the finest examples of a story that speaks to everyone.  And at its lead is the character of Atticus Finch.  If I ever was forced give a single example of what it means to be “a good man” then I would offer up Atticus Finch as my choice.

Author Harper Lee based the book and the character on her own father, who was a lawyer in Alabama 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.

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 Alabama 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.

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 Anderson truly didn’t like him, or if he didn’t want to get too close since their characters were antagonists.

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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  1. This is one hell of a film. When people tell me that black-and-white films are boring or that straight dramas don't hold their interest, I point to this film. It's a real labor of love from everyone involved.

    Few things are as moving as when Atticus walks out of the courtroom at the end. That is a true cinematic moment, a piece of perfection.

  2. I love the book, and although I've bought the DVD I've put off watching it until now.
    You've convinced me to take the plunge!

  3. Nice write up chip, such an amazing film and performance by Peck.

    Thanks for the heads up about Harper Lee with the watch, thats new info for me.

    Crazy that Lee never really published anything again after knocking this one out of the park.

  4. @SJHoneywell - You're right about that scene. It's interesting that you've heard that from others about black and white films. I used to work with a woman who refused to watch anything that wasn't in color. I was never successful in getting her to watch a black and white film, no matter how much the subject matter interested her. She's the only person I've ever encountered that from.

    @Paul S - I see from your profile that I picked the right movie to attract your attention. Like any book to film transition there are things that change. The bonus from the movie is seeing Atticus Finch brought to life by Gregory Peck. And as SJHoneywell pointed out, the cinematography is fantastic.

    @3guys1movie - Thanks. I thought about mentioning that about Harper Lee. At first I was going to make this post a combination book review and movie review, like I have others in the past, but I finally decided it had been too long since I last read the book, so I concentrated on just the movie.

    1. When you work with students, you hear complaints about black-and-white surprisingly often.

    2. Considering the source, I guess it makes sense.

  5. I assigned this book when I taught 8th grade English. The kids loved it. We'd watch the film after completing the unit and they really enjoyed it. Atticus Finch is one of the most respected fictional characters ever--good choice, Chip.

  6. Great review, Obama said this one of the films that most inspired him on a recent TV broadcast introducing this film.

    Anyway this film is great, an iconic role for Peck undoubtedly. It teaches so may great things, but despite the racism that is evident your faith in humanity is somewhat restored thanks to Finch. He's a hero of cinema.

  7. Wonderful review for a great film. Definetly one of my favorite films dealing with the law and human decency, they actually played this one along with "12 angry men" in a psychology class on my university once, they usually run out of the things to say to us and just chose films dealing with law and play them :)

  8. @Kim Wilson - Thanks. I'm glad to hear your students enjoyed it as much as I did.

    @Myerla - "Your faith in humanity is somewhat restored thanks to Finch". I completely agree. Thanks.

    @Sati. - Wow, sounds like a really tough class. :-) Thanks for the kind words.

  9. I have this movie at home on DVD, and I will definitely check it out when I go back for my spring vacation. But first, as you recommended, I will try to read the book, it is a classic, after all! Thanks!

  10. @Diana - Thanks. Please let me know what you think of them when you get a chance.

  11. Great write-up. I had not made the connection between To Kill a Mockingbird and Pleasantville, but it makes perfect sense now - thanks for pointing it out. I love subtle, literate references like that!

    - Sunny D

  12. It could never give the impact in color that being in black & white gives it ! So thankful it wasn't colorized !!! Not many men like Atticus left in the world - too bad