Movies That Everyone Should See: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

For some reason, I felt the need to shift the “Movies That Everyone Should See” series decidedly back into the “classic” territory with this installment. Coupled with the fact that it would have been Gregory Peck’s birthday last week, I wound up with an easy choice.

This week’s Movie That Everyone Should See is one of the greatest films of all time, “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

In 1960, Nelle Harper Lee released her only published novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Based partially on her own experiences growing up, it’s the story of a southern lawyer who defends a black man who’s wrongly been accused of raping a white woman. The racially charged trial divides the town. The events of the story are filtered through the point of view of the lawyer’s children, primarily his daughter. The child’s view of the extremely weighty events helped the book capture the public’s imagination. Its quality and timeliness helped it become an enormous success. In addition to becoming a best seller, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

A feature film adaptation was released less than two years later. December, 1962.

In 1962, the country was embroiled in the fight for Civil Rights. In the same month Gregory Peck would win his Oscar for playing Atticus Finch (April, 1963), Martin Luther King was arrested during protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He had not yet delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The next month, May, fire-hoses and police dogs were used against protesters in Birmingham, the images of which were televised, and stay with us to this day.

The Civil Rights Act was still two years away.

This was the country and the time that “To Kill a Mockingbird” was released in.

It’s an important fact to remember, as the historical context makes the movie a brave one. It was a volatile, tumultuous, violent time. The country was wrestling with bigotry, ignorance and hate. So… the racist townsfolk of the movie’s Maycomb weren’t merely fictional characters, they weren’t representations of historical attitudes. They were countrymen. Contemporaries. The movie may have been a bit of a period piece already by the time of its release, but the racism it was portraying was still strongly prevalent in many parts of the country.

Given the highly charged climate of the time, and the film’s overt stance against racism, It’s impossible to imagine that the movie didn’t, in some small way, contribute to the culture of change.

The lead role of Atticus Finch was played by Gregory Peck.

Finch was a character that required a powerful, intelligent actor. It was a role that required equal measures of gravitas, kindness and toughness. Finch needed to be strong, and just, and smart. When Scout narrates, “There just didn’t seem to be anyone or anything Atticus couldn’t explain,” the audience needed to believe it. They also needed to buy into his impeccable moral compass. When he implores the jury at the end of the trial, “In the name of God do your duty,” the audience needed truly feel the admonishment.

Peck was more than capable of bringing such a character to life. He had been nominated for an Oscar three times prior to playing Finch (“The Keys of the Kingdom”, 1944, “The Yearling”, 1946, “Twelve O’Clock High”, 1949), and go on to be nominated again once more after (“McArthur”, 1977), his fifth. His qualifications as an actor were unquestionable, but he was also the embodiment of the character physically, as well. With his perfect posture, steely good looks, and textbook diction, Peck was the perfect choice.

It was his portrayal that lent “To Kill a Mockingbird” much of its strength.

Of course, there was also the incredible courtroom drama. Asked to represent an innocent black man against charges of rape, Atticus Finch not only accepts, he risks his own safety safeguarding him in jail, and then gives an impassioned defense in court. Even though he knows it will fly in the face of the town’s bigots, Finch stands up for his client. He proceeds to disprove the charges and provide an alternate theory of the crime – that there was no rape, and that the victim’s beating came at the hands of her own father, when he caught her making a pass at a negro man.

In his closing arguments, he lays the facts out plainly, but he realizes that that won’t be enough. He also lays out the inherent bigotry in the situation… openly telling the jurors that the victim and her father are counting on the jury’s prejudice. He pleads with them to do what’s right, to judge based on the facts. To do their duty in the name of God.

To no avail.

The jury finds Tom Robinson guilty. He is later shot to death, while trying to escape.

“There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ‘em all away from ya, but that’s never possible.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t just the story of a lawyer defending his client, against injustice, however. It’s also the story of a father raising his children… teaching his kids to be kind, and righteous.

The movie is filled with instances where Atticus instructs his children on right from wrong, and throughout, he stands as an example for them to follow. You can sense the awe in Jem when Atticus shoots the dog from such a distance. You can see Scout soaking in her father’s instructions as he gives them to her. The Maycomb of the movie is obviously morally compromised, but Atticus stands as a shining example to them of the power of doing the right thing. He’ll even take endure being spit upon so that his children wont see him hitting another person.

And in the end, after Arthur “Boo” Radley saves his children from the vengeful Bob Ewell, you can hear the love he has for them in his voice. “Thank you Arthur. Thank you for my children.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a powerful film. It’s a moving story, powered by a lead performance that’s chiseled out of granite. Its themes of racial injustice are still haunting. But it’s not a depressing film, due to the strength of the familial affection. There are lessons about within courage and not pre-judging others. It’s an engrossing story, with a strong moral center. It’s an amazing, amazing movie.

It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Score and Best Cinematography. The film won for Best Screenplay and Best Art Direction, and Gregory Peck took home the Oscar for Best Actor.

Over time, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has come to hold a place of honor in movie history. It initially placed at #34 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies, but ten years later rose to #25 on the tenth anniversary edition. It made #2 on their list of 100 Cheers, #17 on their greatest scores, and is their #1 Courtroom Drama.

In 2003, Atticus Finch was named their greatest movie hero of all time, topping Indiana Jones (#2) and James Bond (#3).

“To Kill a Mockingbird” has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, guaranteeing that future generations will be able to cherish it, as well.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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41 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “To Kill a Mockingbird”

  1. Woo hoo!!! Thank you first of all for linking to my post, and secondly, for highlighting such a powerful and wonderful film! Having just seen it for the first time not too long ago, I could see why this film stands the test of time. The themes it represented will always be relevant any day and it’s a good way to enlighten kids and adult alike about humanity and justice.

    What a fantastic post you’ve done here, Dan, thank you for doing it at Easter, too, it’s not a religious film but Atticus definitely exemplifies what Christ taught people about loving others like yourself.

    • That IS true, he certainly did. Although I chose it more as a “I need somethign serious to bounce back from the Robocop debacle” than anything along the “Love your neighbor” lines. :D

      No problem on linking your post, you have a virtual wikipedia page up over there right now! It was a really good one.

  2. I can’t say I disagree with AFI’s decision to rank Atticus as the greatest movie hero of all time. It’s hard to think of a more unambiguously decent character.

  3. My school district growing up in Springfield, Oregon, most certainly agrees with you that this is a movie that everyone should see. I was required to read the book and watch the movie in three separate grades, teacher lesson coordination apparently meaning nothing to them. Being made to write a report on the same book and movie three times is enough to make anything wear thin… but it’s still a very important work, and certainly something that everybody should experience at least once.

    Going through it so many times as an academic effort (as opposed to more passive viewing) does have one benefit though, in that you really get to noticing some things that might otherwise slip by on a single viewing. Something I think that passes a lot of people by in the intensity of the racial theme is that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just decrying racial prejudice, it’s decrying prejudice of any kind, any judging before all the facts are in. The story is full of cases where the whole of the thing isn’t clear from the first appearance. Tom’s innocence is the most obvious, and the main thrust, but there are other examples. Arthur “Boo” Radley is a bogeyman to the children, but he’s really just a kind soul, if reclusive. The most “civilized”, pacifistic man in town is the same man all the townsfolk go to when the rabid dog needs to be put down. The old “wino” is just drinking Coca-Cola. Even the name of the narrator hints at the duality of expectations and reality; we’d have a different expectation of her character if she always went by “Miss Jean Louise” instead of “Scout”.

    It’s a great film. I think I’ve probably seen it as much as I could possibly need to see it, but I agree that it’s a film that everybody should see — and discuss. And Gregory Peck absolutely deserved his Oscar for this role.

    • “teacher lesson coordination apparently meaning nothing to them.”

      Apparently not! Surprised you didnt come away hating it… you’d be justified, under those circumstances!

      Valid points about people’s expectations, I did try to acknowledge that a little by using the phrase “not pre-judging” at some point, but I didnt have the room to go into it in the write-up. You know how it is, if you dont toe the line somehow, these things can wind up 8,000 words. Certainly wouldnt have nailed all those examples though, you can tell you’ve put some study in. LOL.

      Probably would have worked in the ol’ “this was Robert Duvall’s first role” somewhere though.

      • I’ll admit I was getting fairly sick of it by the end of school, but it helped that it really was good. Some of my other “double dips” I really did grow to loathe. I hated Lord of the Flies when I was subjected to it in 8th grade, and liked it even less in 10th. Thought Fools Crow (never adapted to a movie, so far as I know) was simplistic and almost insulting in 12th, thought so again in college (I don’t blame either school for the double-dip on this one, as colleges and high schools obviously can’t coordinate; I do, however, blame them for choosing a lousy book.) Got a double dip on Catch 22 as well; didn’t mind that.

        Didn’t realize that about Duvall… heck of a first role.

  4. Excellent choice. Another film in my collection and I may convert it to BD. Beautiful cinematography and supurbly acted.

    • Thanks Alan. The 50th Anniversary Blu looks great and has some nice special features, too. Dont know if they’ve been previously available on other versions though. Seen that trick before.

  5. 100% agree. I just re-watched this movie the other day. It was on USA channel, which was shocking to see. Usually these classics are on TMC or AMC (maybe). I remember reading this book in HIgh School, but I thought the movie was as good as the book.

    For me, the most powerful scene is when Atticus just lost the case and all the African Americans stand up as he walked by to show their respect. I’m so glad you added that picture. To this day, I feel like Tom’s death wasn’t true, but I think I’ve been watching too much Mississippi Burning. LOL

    • Me too. I even chose the quote from that scene to this week’s tagline. Super powerful moment.

      I saw that it was on USA… I think it was due to the anniversary of Peck’s birthday. There were a couple more offerings last week that I noticed as well.

      I dont usually compare books to movies and vice versa, but in this case, theyre both extremely high quality, and both esteemed in their respective mediums. It was a worthy adaptation for sure.

  6. Love that you talked about this one, Dan. To Kill a Mockingbird is my favourite novel of all time, and I love that the film adaptation is just as beautiful and moving and well put together.

    I think there’s such strength in the narrative – in the beautiful simplicity of what’s right from a child’s perspective, and how the right thing gets clouded by society’s norms and judgements. It’s such a powerful coming of age story, and it’s so heartbreaking to see that the world isn’t clearly divided into right and wrong – or that people are so willing to disregard what’s right.

    And of course Peck is the perfect Atticus. Everything hinges on a convincing portrayal of Atticus – to have him be a paragon of virtue without being preachy or inhuman. Peck is amazing here and helps make this movie one of the absolute best around.

    Great work as always!

    • Thanks Shelby!

      It definitely is a coming of age story, too. I really should have paid more credit to that aspect of it, but these things can wind up getting a million pages long. Scout soaks things up like a sponge, and after the events of the movie, she’s a much much wiser young lady.

      They did a great job of hitting all the key points from the novel. They really captured the spirit of it as well. Of course, Peck was instrumental in that. Mary Badham, too (Scout). She did a great job for a kid actor.

      Glad you liked this on Shelby!!

    • [Butthead Voice] Huh, huh. Huh. We had English together? [/Butthead Voice]

      I remember Heffernan, cause she hated me. Were you in that class? Oh, and Burke. She and I hit it off, but she hated Wojo. LOL. I basically remember their faces, not their names.

      The lesson, as always, kids. Dont do a lot of drugs.

      • OMG!! Heffernan HATED me too! I remember Sparks and I spending entire classes making fun of her. I thought I remembered you in Jonatis (sp?) critical writing….maybe not….that was a fun class….I remember thinking how cool she was because she wore jeans to school on Fridays. LOL

      • Yeah, Heffernan said I was sarcastic, a class clown, and taking away from the learning environment of others…..me, really? :)

    • Make ‘em watch Blade Runner, so they can write essays and illuminate you to how awesome it is! :D

      Just bustin’ ya! :D

      This one is definitely a flick you’ve got a great excuse to show…

  7. I just watched this for the first time on Saturday night on USA Network! Great flick indeed. I kind of missed the beginning so I was a bit unsettled that the movie didn’t end right after the trial so I went to Wikipedia to read the plot summary ahah. Definitely need to see it again ;)

    • Hmmm… wondering how much you missed.

      Definitely a classic, should see it in its entirety, but if you could follow along well enough, at least you got the gist of it. Glad you concur!

      And, yeah, what did we do before Wikipedia, you know? :D

  8. I too caught this again on TV Saturday night. It had been some time since I’d seen it. What a beautiful, powerful movie. Great performances; Peck of course, but also Mary Badham embodied the tomboyishness of Scout to a tee, and Brock Peters carried the pride and shame of Tom Robinson with grace.

    A great novel done a great service by a great movie. That’s a MTESS combo.

    • Wow. I should check out USA’s Saturday movie every week, seems like everyone watched it! Of course, it seems like this weekend there’s an NCIS marathon instead. LOL

      I agree, man. Really wanted something solid this week and this was an easy choice to make. Great performances, as you, point out, and a great story. Classic in every way. Glad you agree!

  9. I have this coming next from Netflix, so I’m going to hold off on reading this until I see it. All of this recent Peck love made me give it a boost in the queue. :D

    I’ll be back!

    • I heard that last line in a Schwarzenegger voice :D

      You’ll appreciate it, I’m sure. It’s such a classic. Totally holds up because so many of the themes are so timeless.

      Look forward to hearing your thoughts on it.

  10. One of the all-time great and classic films, Fogs. In fact, I’m trying to get another parent and their child to join my kids and I in watching this on the big screen (which I hope will be an excellent intro to this film and its timely message) at a UCLA cinema screening come June. This fine review of yours will help in that. Well done, my friend.

    • Well. Damn. If I could help in some way there, of course, I’d be more than happy to. That sounds like a great idea.

      I hope they dont need TOO much persuading, I mean, come ON! This is a CLASSIC! :D

      Go get ‘em Le0p!! Show ‘em the way!

  11. Another great review and recommendation for a movie that was high on our family list of favorites. Such powerful acting, from the main characters down to the bit actors, make this movie a one-of-a-kind, pure in it’s message of teaching one how to accept a person regardless of their race or intelligence.

  12. Now that I have finally seen this and shared my thoughts as well, I wanted to come back and read your post. This is a very well written piece, Fogs, and I especially like how you described Finch/Peck. That’s pretty incredible that he was voted the greatest movie hero of all time. I won’t be arguing that point.

    Great screencap to end the post, too. Well done.

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