To Kill a Mockingbird

Released:  1962

Cast:  Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Ruth White, Paul Fix, Brock Peters, Frank Overton, Robert Duvall

Oscar Wins:  Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen, Oliver Emert)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Mulligan), Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Russell Harlan), Best Supporting Actress (Mary Badham), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein)

SUMMARY:  In the early 1930s, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jeremy Atticus “Jem” Finch (Phillip Alford) live with their widowed father in Maycomb, Alabama.  The two children are each other’s best friend, and spend all their time together.  One of their recurring entertainments is Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first film role), a mysterious and reclusive neighbor they have never actually seen.  Their father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a local lawyer who has very strong ideals, particularly about equality and nonviolence.  Late in the summer, the local judge appoints Atticus to represent a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who is accused of raping a white girl named Mayella Ewell.  Atticus knows the trouble that will surround the case, but agrees to take it.  To protect Tom, he is held in a jail several towns over.  The night before his trial, he is brought back to Maycomb’s jail.  Fearing that there might be trouble, Atticus spends the night in front of the jail.  Sure enough, a lynch mob shows up.  Jem, Scout and their friend Dill have snuck out of the house to follow Atticus, and see the mob approach Atticus.  Despite Jem’s urging, Scout runs up to Atticus.  She recognizes the leader of the mob, Mr. Cunningham, as the father of a classmate, and a former client of her father’s.  Scout tells Mr. Cunningham that she knows his son, and so embarrasses and shames the man that he and the rest of the mob leave.

The trial begins the next day.  It is established and agreed by both sides that Tom Robinson entered the Ewell yard to chop up an old chifforobe, and that Mayella later showed signs of being beaten.  However, most of the bruises were on the right side of Mayella’s face, indicating that she was hit by someone who is left-handed.  However, Atticus demonstrates that Tom’s left hand is crippled and useless; however, Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, is shown to be left-handed.  Furthermore, Atticus points out that Mayella had never been examined by a doctor to prove that she had been raped.  When Tom takes the stand, he tells the jury that he entered the Ewell house after Mayella requested his help; she then kissed him before realizing that her father was watching through the window.  When asked why he routinely helped Mayella, Tom says that he felt sorry for her.  This statement is mocked by the prosecutor, and proves to be the nail in the coffin:  Tom is found guilty.  That evening, Atticus learns from the sheriff that while being taken to prison, Tom tried to escape, and was shot and killed.  Atticus decides to go to the Robinson house himself to break the news, and Jem and Scout go with him.  While Atticus talks to the family, the children stay in the car; during this time, a drunken Bob Ewell shows up and spits in Atticus’ face as Jem watches.  Rather than retaliate, Atticus calmly wipes his face and leaves.  Not long after, the children are involved in a Halloween pageant at school.  Scout is playing a ham, and has a large costume that almost completely covers her.  This proves to be a good thing, as Scout manages to misplace both her dress and shoes during the pageant; to walk home, she has to wear the ham costume.  Jem walks home with her, but as they cut through the woods, they are attacked by a mystery assailant.  Scout’s sturdy costume protects her, but prevents her from seeing what is going on, and from fighting back.  She is able to see that the attacker is suddenly beset by another man, who drives off the original attacker.  During the struggle, Jem’s arm is broken, which knocks him unconscious; Scout sees the second man carry him back home, and follows.  When Atticus learns what has happened, he quickly summons both the doctor and the sheriff.  The sheriff asks Scout to describe the encounter.  As she does so, she notices a man standing behind the door to Jem’s bedroom.  She recognizes him as the man who stopped the attack, then carried Jem home.  To her surprise, Scout also realizes that this is the mysterious Boo Radley.  Privately, the sheriff tells Atticus that Bob Ewell was found in the woods with a knife stuck in him, dead.  Atticus jumps to the conclusion that Jem killed the man in self-defense, but the sheriff believes that Boo killed him while saving the children.  However, he also believes that publicizing the event would be detrimental to the shy and reclusive Boo, and so decides to report that Ewell fell on his knife.  As the movie ends, Scout walks with Boo back to his house, hand in hand.

MY TAKE:  In most cases, movies that are adapted from great books do not live up to expectations.  This movie, along with Gone With the Wind, is one of the rare exceptions, where great books are made into great movies.  This movie is full of great performances, but the one that really makes the difference is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.  Atticus is a great hero in the book, and casting the wrong person in the role would have been a disaster for the film.  Luckily, they made the right choice, as several people have stated that Gregory Peck was basically playing himself.  Atticus represents everything good and moral during a time and a situation in which neither was prevalent.  In the 1930s in Alabama (or any Southern state, really), a black man accused of raping a white woman would basically be a dead man walking.  It would be difficult to find a white lawyer to represent him, and even more difficult to find one who was actually a good lawyer.  Atticus is so good that he nearly wins the case (and obviously should have) in front of an all-male, all-white jury.  Honestly, the fact that Atticus has such non-racist views surprised me, just because he lived in a state where that was just the way things were.  He is vehemently opposed to any kind of segregation or discrimination, whether race- or class-based, and forbids his children from using certain words that were commonplace when referring to African-Americans.  Instead, he demands that they be upstanding and kind, forbidding Scout to fight at school, even when she is trying to defend him.  His viewpoint is shared by the sheriff, who is the one to warn Atticus that a lynch mob is after Tom Robinson the night before his trial.  It’s a surprising attitude, but a refreshing one (even though you pretty much know it’s going to be an unsuccessful and difficult one to uphold).  In my opinion, Atticus Finch deserves the rating that AFI gave him as the greatest movie hero of all time.

RATING:  Wonderful.

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