Thursday 18 March 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Director: Robert Mulligan
Star: Gregory Peck

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those rare films that is as good as its source novel. Cinema has a habit of milking literature for its stories and very few of the resulting movies match their source in quality, partly because of the inherent length issues and partly because of the replacement of imagination with actuality. Harper Lee spent three years writing and rewriting her novel, which was published in 1960, won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was filmed in 1962. The film won three Oscars and four Golden Globes in the year when Lawrence of Arabia was dominant, including one of each for Gregory Peck who is outstanding in the key role of Atticus Finch. Over forty years later, Peck's portrayal still resonates so strongly that when the American Film Institute put together its lists of the greatest heroes and villains, it was Finch who beat out strong competition to end up as the greatest movie hero of all time.

Rewatching To Kill a Mockingbird in 2004 after The Adventures of Robin Hood drummed home just why that vote was entirely fair. Both Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch portray the epitome of heroism, strong and absolute, but in entirely opposite ways. Robin Hood is so one dimensional that even when he's captured after the golden arrow archery competition and thrust into jail facing imminent death, he's not worried in the slightest. And sure enough on the way to the gallows, his band of merry men rescue him and he carries on regardless as if nothing had ever happened. There's no depth whatsoever when the only thing Flynn really has to do is swashbuckle and the choice of right over wrong is merely inherent and inevitable.

In comparison, Atticus Finch is troubled all the way through this film as he struggles to do what is right under very difficult circumstances. He's well aware that he's putting himself into serious danger and he's more than a little scared, but he follows his beliefs firmly while preparing for this danger because it simply must be done. He shows us by example what is right, but in so doing shows us what would have been wrong too, demonstrating in no uncertain terms just how difficult a choice it is to be right under certain circumstances and how easy it would be to simply walk away. As Hannah More wrote, 'Activity may lead to evil, but inactivity cannot lead to good.' Finch is a good man and he takes a long hard road to keep it that way.

His job isn't an easy one. Finch is a lawyer, in the segregated 1930s Alabama town of Maycomb, and he's accepted an appointment to defend a black man. The defendant, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping and beating a white woman, serious charges for anyone but doubly serious for someone crossing that interracial divide where merely being black made you guilty and your deeds could only provide an excuse for something serious to be done about it. Finch, a white man, has to defend him, which puts him on very dubious moral ground in the eyes of many of his fellow townsfolk. What's more, he knows that justice is not likely to be served, even if he proves his client innocent.

The film runs in two halves, both told through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, Finch's six year old tomboy daughter, because all the racial background is really just that, a background. This is a story about growing up and it aims at being a universal one, whether viewers today are old enough to remember segregation or just read about it in school. Gregory Peck said that he was drawn to the role because it reminded him of growing up in La Jolla, California. 'I think perhaps the great appeal of the novel,' he wrote as a preface to the 1962 paperback release, 'is that it reminds readers everywhere of a person or a town they have known.' I tend to have trouble with this sort of thing, given that I didn't grow up in the States but somehow here it didn't matter.

The first half of the film sets the stage, as we get to see the buildup to Tom Robinson's trial from a child's point of view. Naturally this doesn't give us any real detail into what is going on because Scout and her elder brother Jem are far more interested in the local bogeyman, a reclusive young man by the name of Boo Radley. Instead they merely experience certain shocking moments which are all the more shocking because these kids don't have much context to place them in. The second half is the trial itself where Scout and Jem get thrust first hand right into the detail of it all from the balcony, where they sit with the local black preacher, the only white folks up there. This gives us added impact as, while we know that something big is coming, we're hit with it just as the kids are.

Telling the story from the children's point of view is the masterstroke here as we get to experience the same lessons that they experience. Sometimes things really are that simple, even when they're also incredibly difficult. The source novel is still Harper Lee's only work though she's still alive today, coming up on her 84th birthday as I write. Perhaps this is because it's largely autobiographical, being loosely based on her father, family and other people in Monroeville, the real version of the Tom Robinson incident occurring nearby in 1936 when she was ten. Finch was her mother's maiden name. The novel won her the Pulitzer Prize and has resonated so much with Americans that 45 years after it was written, she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Mary Badham, the young actress playing Scout, in other words, Harper Lee, is astounding. She puts in a superb natural performance in what must have been a very difficult part to play. She gets one massive scene in particular: a lynch mob has come to mete out their own brand of justice on Tom Robinson before the trial starts, and only Atticus Finch stands in their way. In come the kids and Scout's innocent words to the father of one of her friends shame the entire lynch mob into going home. That's a heck of a difficult scene to lay on one little girl under ten but she carries it off with aplomb. What's most amazing is that she didn't see herself as an actress. She appeared in two further films at fourteen but then retired from the industry entirely, returning only once for a film called Our Very Own in 2005 at the express request of writer/director Cameron Watson, who stated simply that he would not accept any other actress for the part.

This scene isn't the only tearjerker in the film either. The scene where all the black people on the courthouse balcony stand up in respect for Atticus as he leaves the building is one of the greatest tearjerkers in cinematic history. It's such a momentous moment that the tears well just remembering it. 'Jean Louise,' says Rev Sykes. 'Jean Louise, stand up. Your father's passing.' The aftermath of Boo Radley's eventual appearance isn't far behind either. Most notably, some of these scenes, such as Atticus Finch's summation to the jury and a good portion of the end of the film, are entirely without music, even when there's nothing being said. It seems strange not to hear the emotional cues that a score usually provides to help us realise what we should be feeling, but the subject matter here is easily strong enough to do without it entirely and it feels even more stark and impactful for that choice.

All the performances match that strength too, not least that of Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, who gives us a performance just as good as any given by Sidney Poitier, who landed what seems like every other important racial tension role throughout the entirety of classic Hollywood. He's an innocent man here, on trial for his life because he may have been a little naive and was attractive to a white woman, Mayella Ewell. 'She was white and she tempted a Negro,' says Atticus Finch. 'She did something that in our society is unspeakable.' Collin Wilcox is suitably white trash as Mayella but Tom Robinson is superb as Brock Peters. He'd already made three movies, Carmen Jones, Porgy and Bess and The L-Shaped Room, but would go onto many more in many genres, beginning with another Robinson, Matthew Robinson in the Peter Sellers comedy, Heavens Above!

Everyone else does their job precisely as it should be done, whether they're playing officials or children, white or black, but two more leap out for mention. Robert Duvall is stunning in his film debut as Boo Radley, even though he doesn't appear until the finale and doesn't say a word. He's the bogeyman of the piece, a character easily recognisable from what seems like every American coming of age story. They all look different but they mean precisely the same thing. He gets a great set up though. Jem scares his friends by describing him. 'He's about six and a half feet tall,' he says. 'He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There's a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.' As I'm sure you can imagine he isn't any of those things, but that's utterly not the point. What matters is what he means. 'Boo only comes out at night when you're asleep and it's pitch-dark,' says Jem. He's the primordial something to fear.

And then there's Gregory Peck, who a number of people have suggested didn't have to stretch in the slightest to play Atticus Finch, so much so that his nine minute summation of the case was shot in a single take. 'The fit was among the most natural things about a most natural film,' said producer Alan J Pakula. 'I must say the man and the character he played were not unalike.' Brock Peters said that 'Atticus Finch gave him an opportunity to play himself.' Peck reminded Harper Lee so much of her father, Amasa Lee, who the character Atticus Finch was based on, that after he died during filming, she gave him her father's watch and chain, which he wore to accept his Academy Award for the part. Perhaps united by such a story, a number of the central actors became lifelong friends, including Peck, Badham and Peters, who gave the eulogy at Peck's funeral.

It's impossible to watch the character of Atticus Finch and not be inspired. He's the epitome of all the screen fathers, teachers and guardians, because he's utterly down to earth and able to impart great wisdom in simple language. Perhaps this language is what makes him such a powerful character, especially to Scout and Jem during the trying times that surround the story. 'You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view,' he tells Scout, 'until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.' When Jem is subjected to racial abuse, he suggests that, 'there's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.' And that's why we have this film.


Anonymous said...

Great review...this is my favorite film of all time. From Elmer Bernstein's classic score (which to this day every time I hear it I can't help but cry) to Gregory Peck's role as Atticus a role that he was destined to play. This movie is perfect from start to end!

peregrine fforbes-hamilton said...

Hal, it would still be nice to read that reveiw of "This Property Is Condemned" (1966) it really is a rather charming although ultimately sad little drama.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I have This Property is Condemned on DVD. I'll pull it off the shelf at some point.

Friendship SMS said...

I can't begin to describe the quality of this book. It paints a very clear picture of segregation in 19th century America using a child as the narrator. And it works like a charm. One of the best books I've read in recent times.