After the huge literary success of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird it only seemed fitting Hollywood would make a movie of Ms. Lee’s classic novel. And since its 1962 release the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird has become a classic itself. The American Film Institute named it one of the top 100 films of all time. And Gregory Peck won a much-deserved Oscar for his laudable portrayal of Atticus Finch. I decided to revisit the movie. I’m glad I did.
As To Kill a Mockingbird opens, we are introduced by Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham) Finch. They are being raised by their widowed father, Atticus, who makes his living as a lawyer in small-town Alabama, and minded by Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the Finch family housekeeper. Jem and Scout have just made friends with Dill (John Megna) who lives down the street. Most of the story is shown through the eyes of the Finch children, especially the tomboyish Scout.
The Finch children are rambunctious and curious, and they desire a chance to explore the world. And in their tender years, their world is their neighborhood. Scout and Jem are very intrigued by the Radley house, a house that always seems to always be dark and shuttered. It is rumored that in the Radley house lives a monster, a monster named Boo (Robert Duvall in his first movie role). According to Jem, Boo is a towering 6 and a half feet tall, drools, and has a large scar on his face. He lives on raw squirrels and cats, and his father often has him chained to his bed. What would happen if Boo escaped his chains? Would he hurt little kids?
And in the midst of all this speculation, Atticus is called to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters). Tom has been accused of raping and beating Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Though there is ample evidence that Tom didn’t harm Mayella in any way, in the Jim Crow south an innocent black man means nothing compared to the opinions and bigotry of white people. The people of Maycomb let know Atticus should not defend Tom, doing everything from nearly lynching Tom to inadvertently threatening the Finch children. Atticus knows he has a monumental mountain to climb, yet he knows he must defend Tom. It’s the right thing to do. And before long, Scout and Jem realize it is the right thing to do.
The court scenes in To Kill a Mockingbird might be some of the most compelling committed to celluloid. Atticus tries valiantly to bring out the inconsistencies in Mayella’s story while also showing her empathy. The trial rivets the town bringing even Jem and Scout to the courthouse to witness their father in action. When the verdict is finally read, there is no jubilation or cheers. There are no tears of anguish or screams in anger. There is just an unsettling silence. As the white folks leave the courtroom the black folks stay behind standing in honor of Atticus brave defense of Tom Robinson. And a minister utters one of my favorite movie lines ever, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, your father’s passin’.”
Bad things continue to happen. Tragedy beyond the trial befalls Tom Robinson’s family, and Atticus has to deliver the bad news to Tom’s wife. Jem and Scout are attacked my Mayella Ewell’s father Bob, but mysterious man saves the children from harm. That mystery man turns out to be Boo Radley. The man Jem and Scout fear the most turns out to be a savior.
Jem and Scout learn some very important lessons. Life isn’t always fair, but there are things worth fighting for. Parents, in all their wisdom, are only human. People aren’t always what they seem.
Directed by Robert Mulligan with a script by Harold Foote, To Kill a Mockingbird is filmed in black and white. It is a drama that feels fully human and real. Though I came of age of a much less “innocent” time than Jem and Scout, I recall a time when I thought grownups had all the answers, justice and fairness would prevail, and I had to fear the great unknown. I also remember telling stories to my friends, coming up with fun games during lazy summers, and worrying about my first day of school.
But of course, I’m also from a generation that was defined by assassinations, corporate and political scandals, unnecessary wars, terrorism, polarization and divisiveness, and family strife. I found myself weeping for a more innocent time that Jem and Scout were living in soon reminding me that no child has lived in a completely innocent time.
As mentioned Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch. But I was also blown away by the performances of both Philip Alford and Mary Badham. Badham is especially remarkable as Scout, natural, inquisitive, brave and smart. I truly believe Badham gave one of the greatest child film performances. She’s right up there with Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” Henry Thomas in “E.T.” and Victoire Thivisol in the French film “Ponette.” Badham never made another movie after To Kill a Mockingbird but what a tiny legacy she made. Her performance is both timeless and timely, and so is the film.