Movie Project #14: To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]

To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]
Director: Robert Mulligan
Genre: Crime/Drama/Mystery
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters
Runtime: 129 minutes

Way back in high school, in one of my English classes, I was assigned to read Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Already tired of reading less-than-desirable books (in my teenage eyes) such as ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’, I opted to stick to Cliff Notes for that particular classic. Looking back now, many years later, I wish I had read Lee’s famed novel, especially after finally viewing the 1962 film adaptation.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a snapshot of the 1930s Deep South as seen through the eyes of a six year old named Scout (Mary Badham). Our young protagonist and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) enjoy life in their small rural town, playing around and making new friends, but they are also wary of this shady character named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) who lives down the street. Legend has it that Boo is chained to a bed and only comes out at night. He’s also six and a half feet tall, and boasts a diet of raw squirrels and “all the cats he can catch.” Gotta love kids and their wild imaginations.

To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]

While the first act of the film focuses on the playful nature of the kids and their rural upbringing, the film takes a stunning turn once their father, town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), is assigned a new case. Atticus is selected to represent a black man, Tom Robinson (the terrific Brock Peters), who has been accused of raping a young white woman. Racism is running rampant during this time period, so naturally Tom doesn’t have much of a fighting chance despite there being an extraordinary amount of evidence to prove he is innocent.

During the actual trial, we are shown an absolutely incredible scene where Atticus delivers a powerful speech that any sane, non-bigoted person would believe and approve of. This is where Gregory Peck is at his finest. He delivers this speech with a sense of conviction in a way that makes everyone in the courtroom (viewers included) give him their full attention. It’s a shame that this moment is wasted shortly after when the jury finds Tom to be guilty anyway.

After the trial, life changes quickly for Atticus and his children. Many of the locals are irate over Atticus defending a black man, regardless of whether he was innocent or not. This hatred is defined by the movie’s villain, Bob Ewell (James K Anderson), the victim’s father and her true assailant. In a drunken stupor, he attacks Scout and Jem, only for them to be saved by the same man they were once scared of, Boo Radley. Funny how that works out.

To Kill a Mockingbird [1962]

To Kill a Mockingbird is an intriguing film that carefully tackles the issue of racism while also providing a nostalgic look at childhood. If I have any reservations, it is that the transition from playfulness to a serious court trial is a bit jarring, as it almost feels like two separate movies were merged together as one. Still, there’s no denying the film’s importance in history, and not enough can be said about Gregory Peck’s unforgettable performance.

While researching this, I learned that the film also had a lasting impression on its cast members. Gregory Peck received the pocketwatch of Harper Lee’s father, became the surrogate father to Mary Badham, and Brock Peters delivered Peck’s eulogy after his death in 2003. If that doesn’t show the lasting importance of this film, I don’t know what would.