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  • Post last modified:January 30, 2022

To Kill a Mockingbird: An Idyll With Shadows


Gregory Peck. Photo: Universal

Often recognized as one of the great films of the 1960s, To Kill a Mockingbird was not a favorite of Roger Ebert’s. In his review from 2001, he writes about how Atticus Finch, the white liberal hero, remains the leading character throughout while the African-Americans are used as ”props”. He also notes that the film seems to exist in a fantasy world where the real-life nastiness for a non-white person to grow up in 1930s Alabama is glossed over. To Ebert, this is especially true in a scene where Finch’s children manage to talk a mob out of lynching a Black man.

I can’t really argue with that. The film brings up a few evil traditions in the South, but the horror of it doesn’t really hit home. Still, this adaptation has many other qualities that make you forget Ebert’s qualms.

Taking on a difficult case
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a widower and attorney, is raising his two children, Scout and Jem (Mary Badham, Philip Alford), with help from a housekeeper. One day, a local judge asks Finch if he would be willing to take on a difficult case, defending a Black man (Brock Peters) who stands accused of having raped a white girl. Finch agrees to do it, even if that means turning the girl’s aggressive father (James Anderson) into a potentially dangerous enemy. As a result, Scout and Jem are bullied by classmates… but they also can’t help but spying on Arthur ”Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), a mysterious neighbor who never leaves his house and is the subject of local gossip.

Peck’s portrayal will survive
Harper Lee’s novel is a classic. When she finally published a new one starring Atticus Finch last year we were all stunned to learn that the liberal hero had become a segregationist! ”Go Set a Watchman” turned out not to be a sequel though, but a first draft written in the 1950s that would later become ”To Kill a Mockingbird”. The image of Atticus Finch has become confused, but Peck’s portrayal of him in this film will survive the debacle. Lee was reportedly very pleased with the star playing Finch, it just seemed right in every way, and a role that was close to the real-life Peck.

This was Robert Duvall’s debut picture and his role as the initially intimidating but ultimately touching Boo is a great way to start a screen career. The young talents who play Scout and Jem are also terrific and the filmmakers take the childish point of view seriously. Scout in particular really is the leading character and she becomes the innocent witness to everything that is wrong with the southern society she’s growing up in. The trial is a compelling example of this (the highlight being Finch’s closing remarks), but the story also has a more symbolic subplot, the one involving Boo, where the children learn not to assume the worst about people but treat everyone as their equal. To the kids, the trial becomes an eye-opening but still somewhat theoretical example of racism, but the situation with Boo is a more practical exercise.

The film may offer a sanitized version of the South, but still brings up relevant issues in a way that is intelligent and sensitive, like a gentler reminder of what racism used to look like in traditional communities. Who’s to say really that this approach hasn’t been effective; after all, the film has been shown in classrooms countless times and I’m sure that has had some impact.

Director Robert Mulligan never made a movie this impressive again. But he, cinematographer Russell Harlan and composer Elmer Bernstein created an atmosphere that isn’t easily captured – an idyll for sure, but one with flaws and scary shadows lurking everywhere. Some of them imagined, some of them sadly realistic.

To Kill a Mockingbird 1962-U.S. 129 min. B/W. Produced by Alan J. Pakula. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Screenplay: Horton Foote. Novel: Harper Lee. Cinematography: Russell Harlan. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Art Direction: Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen. Cast: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch), Mary Badham (Jean Louise ”Scout” Finch), Philip Alford (Jeremy Atticus ”Jem” Finch), John Megna, Brock Peters… Robert Duvall.

Oscars: Best Actor (Peck), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration. Golden Globes: Best Actor (Peck), Original Score.

Last word: “[Mulligan] was so patient. He was one of the best directors we ever had in California. He would get down at eye-level. He would squat down and talk to us. He didn’t talk to us like children. He basically would set up the scene for us and let us do the scene. If he needed to tweak it, he would tweak it. He made a game out of it. He made it really fun.” (Badham, SBS Film)



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