TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)

  • Director: Robert Mulligan
  • Writers: Horton Foote, based on the novel by Harper Lee
  • Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Brock Peters, Frank Overton, and Robert Duvall
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#25), 3 Oscars (Best Actor – Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Mulligan, Best Supporting Actress – Mary Badham, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

This is a movie that’s probably watched by most American school children, because basically every one of them is forced to read the Harper Lee novel it’s based on and rare is the teacher who will pass up the time a perfectly good movie version of a book gives them once the class is done reading it. This is beyond all of the kids who watch the movie to say they’ve read the book, a tactic likely more effective in this instance than in many others. The place of the story of To Kill a Mockingbird in American culture, however, remains a complicated one. On a surface level, it is book aimed squarely at, and told through the eyes of, children, yet at the center of its plot sits an accusation of rape. For this reason, there are still occasional calls to ban the book from schools. In a larger sense, this story may today be the first contact many children (particularly White children) have with the story of racism in America, yet it’s told almost exclusively through the eyes of White people. I don’t mean to say that this story hasn’t done much more good than harm over the years, but it is worth thinking about critically.

Atticus Finch, as portrayed here by Gregory Peck in one of history’s most acclaimed performances, is in some ways the hero of the ultimate “White Savior” narrative. In one of the American Film Institute’s other lists (the AFI never met a list of “greatest” things it didn’t want to do a TV special about), it named Atticus Finch the number one Movie Hero of all time (Indiana Jones and James Bond were #2 and #3, respectively). I enjoy this movie and and Peck’s performance in it perfectly fine, but this has never rung true for me. All he really has to do here is stand there and look noble. Harper Lee herself would later write in the DVD liner notes decades later that Peck performance was so powerful because he was “playing himself.” Though he had already been nominated for four previous Oscars, it was this performance that not only won Peck the award but also established him, at the time, as basically “America’s Dad” (one could argue Tom Hanks now holds the same position), with a sense of gravitas almost impossible to duplicate. The Democratic Party later tried to talk him into running for Governor of California against Ronald Reagan. Peck told them he wasn’t interested in politics, but later did agree to narrate TV ads opposing Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. Bork’s candidacy eventually failed.

To Kill a Mockingbird, for those who either went to one of the few American schools where they weren’t forced to read the novel or live in other countries (I honestly don’t have much of a sense of the overseas penetration of this very American story), is set in a small Alabama town during the Great Depression. Harper Lee based the novel on events in her own life, and the story is narrated and mostly told through the eyes of a young girl named Scout (Mary Badham) that Lee based on herself. Through the eyes of Scout, her brother Jem, and the weird neighbor boy they hang out with (supposedly based on the author Truman Capote), we see her father Atticus, a respected local lawyer, take on the thankless task of defending a Black man (Brock Peters) accused of rape by a poor White girl and her father.

The movie’s most memorable sequence is the trial itself, when Peck gets all his best moments and Peters gives a powerhouse performance. In the book, the trial is still told through the eyes of Scout, sitting in the balcony at the old small-town courthouse (the real Alabama courthouse where the trial sequence was shot is still there, and frequently puts on its own productions of To Kill a Mockingbird for tourists). However, the movie essentially forgets about the kids, who have been the main characters up to that point, for 45 minutes, and honestly I’m grateful for it because it’s by far the most interesting part of the movie.

The greatest success of this movie isn’t showy. It is in the fact that it so successfully and clearly translates the appeal of the novel into a movie. This might seem simple, just show what happens in the book, but people in Hollywood at the time didn’t really think it possible. That is how Robert Mulligan, a relatively new director whose last two movies had been Tony Curtis comedies, ended up with the Directing gig, because nobody else wanted it. The movie’s producer, Alan J. Pakula, has described his difficulty selling the project to studios, despite the runaway success of the book, because “it had no romance, and all the action takes place off screen.” Today this is the only one of Mulligan’s films most people will have seen.

In addition to Peck’s performance, the movie is known today as the first film appearance of Robert Duvall, who would go on to appear in several other entries in the AFI Top 100, among many other films. Looking almost unrecognizable from a modern perspective, Duvall plays the Finches’ mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley, who the children spend much of the movie antagonizing but saves them in the end. In addition to Duvall, it also marked the big screen debut of several other members of the cast. He was discovered by screenwriter Horton Foote, who saw him at a small playhouse in New York and recommended him for the role. Badham was cast at the age of 10 was cast because she was actually from Alabama, and it’s hard to ask a little kid to do an accent. After this film she had a brief career as a child actress (her only other appearance that is still likely to be seen today is in the final episode of the original Twilight Zone), and then grew up to be an art restorer. William Windom also debuts as the prosecutor opposite Peck in the big trial, he went on to a long career that included a regular role on Murder, She Wrote and a popular appearance in an episode of the original Star Trek as Commodore Decker.

Today To Kill a Mockingbird stands as something of a monolithic classic. It’s the first real indictment of racism many people see. It can therefore be hard to see what an idealized version of its era it actually presents. Scout and her friends have basically the perfect childhood, and the perfect father. When the locals storm the county jail with torches, ready to lynch Atticus’ client, they are shamed into going home by Scout’s mere presence. The movie’s view of the story seems to be that the only real villain is the accuser’s father, who it is implied beats her and forces her to make her rape accusation. Everyone else is just misguided, and needs Gregory Peck to set his jaw in their general direction to see the light of their ways. This makes sense when you realize that Lee was writing about people she knew. But in a weird way it masks how virulent and all-encompassing Southern racism really was, and is. That is why To Kill a Mockingbird remains so powerful; though it is set in the 1930s, it should not be forgotten that it reflects experiences people are still having today. 

I feel compelled before leaving you to mention my problem with the title. Atticus explains to Scout that she should not attack or bother people who have not bothered anyone else. He says that is why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because they are completely harmless and all they do is sing for us. I am an avid birder and support not bothering mockingbirds, but let’s just say that they are not the bird I would choose as an example of a bird that doesn’t bother anyone. Not only do they never shut up, they are also jerks. They like to chase other birds, and once pecked my tiny dog in the butt just for getting sort of near them. I am aware that is not the point, but I wanted to say it anyway.

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