Should I Watch..? To Kill a Mockingbird
What's the big deal?
To Kill A Mockingbird is a coming-of-age drama film released in 1962 and was based on the 1960 novel of the same name by American author Harper Lee. Directed by Robert Mulligan, the film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch - a white lawyer in the Deep South who must defend an African-American man against a racist jury as well as his children Jem and Scout from the prejudices in their community in post-Depression America. The film received near-universal acclaim from critics with many contemporaries citing it as one of the best films ever made. It grossed more than ten times its budget and won a total of three Oscars including Best Actor for Peck. The film also featured John Megna, Frank Overton, Brock Peters and Robert Duvall as well as child actors Mary Badham and Phillip Alford.
What's it about?
The film concerns the memories of Jean Louise Finch, who was known as Scout as a child when she was growing up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama in the early 1930s. Together with her brother Jeremy (known as Jem), the two of them grew up in the care of their father - a widowed lawyer called Atticus Finch - and their home-help Calpurnia. Their care-free summers consisted mainly of getting into mischief with the visiting boy next door Dill and spying on the reclusive and enigmatic "Boo" Radley who is kept out of society and remains confined to the Radley House.
One summer, Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson - an African American accused of rape by Mayella Ewell, daughter of the bigoted Robert "Bob" Ewell. With Atticus aware of the town's prejudice against black people, he not only takes it upon himself to prove Tom's innocence but also protect Jem and Scout from the evil attitudes of Maycomb...
Trailer for Blu-ray release
Jean Louise "Scout" Finch
Jeremy Atticus "Jem" Finch
Charles Baker "Dill" Harris
Sheriff Heck Tate
Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell
Horton Foote *
Release Date (UK)
9th May, 1963
Best Actor (Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Set Decoration
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Badham), Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score
What's to like?
It's impossible to start anywhere other than with Peck's imperious performance as the quiet, noble hero Atticus. His performance is simply sublime - even Harper Lee herself claimed that he looked like her father, the inspiration for the character. Many may suggest that the role and the actor aren't too dissimilar but even so, it is a performance of genuine class. And he isn't alone - both Badham and Alford are fantastic as the two siblings losing their innocence at the injustices around them. The script, which actually does a fine job of keeping the story intact, is also a winner. Evocative and emotive, it manages to dispense with a lot of the first half of the book which mainly deals in the various misadventures of Jem and Scout anyway.
But the film is about so much more than a great performance and racist-shaming. The sets and the perfect recreation of 1930s rural Alabama reinforce the film's plausibility while the monochrome lighting is used to great effect throughout, from the inherent mystery surrounding the Radley house to Bob Ewell's drunken sneering. It's an easy film to watch, possibly because the story is somewhat whimsical and possibly because the film feels like much care and attention was paid during its production. You get the sense that this is the result of much love from cast and crew and the resulting film still stands the test of time.
- Peck and Badham became firm friends during filming and remained in touch for the rest of Peck's life. Peck even called her Scout while she usually called him Atticus.
- As well as being the film debuts for Badham and Alford (both of whom later left show business), the film was also the debuts for William Windom, Alice Ghostley and Robert Duvall. Duvall doesn't have a single line of dialogue in the entire film.
- Badham was the youngest ever actress to receive an Academy Award nomination at the age of 9 during filming. Ironically, she lost to another child actress - the fourteen-year-old Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker (1).
What's not to like?
Whimsical, I hear you say? Granted, the story of a noble white man defending the rights of the oppressed sounds great but I rather suspect that the reality would have been rather different at the time. Cynical critic comments aside, the film doesn't do much to lose marks. The opening scenes that mainly feature the children playing in the streets and gardens of Maycomb feel at odds with the rather threatening atmosphere that comes through the screen around the court case. The scenes featuring the lynch mob, in particular, are genuinely frightening and especially to someone like myself who grew up in a part of the world where such deep-rooted resentment never manifested itself so openly - at least, not in my lifetime.
If anything, the movie's appeal and message seems to have strengthened in the intervening years. It's a tragic state of affairs that racial differences still plague the US as the recent spate of police shootings and the worrying rise of Donald Trump as a potential Presidential candidate suggest. Would an adaptation be as warmly received today as it was back then? Regardless, the film's legacy is as solid as it ever was. Like the novel, it is both an intelligent and heart-breaking tale where good doesn't always overcome evil.
Should I watch it?
Catching up with it today on Netflix was a genuine joy, reaffirming my conviction that this much-respected movie is well worth spending time with. But I have a better idea - I first encountered this film during school and that is probably the best place to play it. The film's message of tolerance and equality is as important now as it has ever been while traditional film fans can admire the incredible performances from cast young and old. To Kill A Mockingbird is the sort of subtly daring movie they simply don't make any more and for me, that's a real shame.
Great For: cinema lovers, teachers, fans of the book, Americans
Not So Great For: UKIP supporters, Donald Trump, lynch mobs
What else should I watch?
To say that the film is still beloved by millions is an understatement - the American Film Institute ranks To Kill A Mockingbird as the best courtroom drama ever made, beating the equally enjoyable 12 Angry Men (2) into second place. I'm not a big fan of courtroom dramas personally but other options include Kramer Vs. Kramer (3), A Time To Kill (4) and Presumed Innocent (5). Though as I say, I'd rather have half an hour with Judge Judy - at least it's over after 30 minutes.
America's relationship with its troubled past continues to provide plenty of movies with material to draw from. From the much-heralded Crash (6) (the 2004 release, not the creepy David Cronenberg effort from 1996) and the widely acclaimed 12 Years A Slave (7) to violent Westerns like Django Unchained (8), it's interesting to note that while Hollywood may be slowly striving for equality (very slowly indeed), the problems and issues such films raise are still those affecting many viewers in the United States on a daily basis, especially those in power. Isn't that a worrying thought?
© 2016 Benjamin Cox