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”.