To Kill a Mockingbird (United States, 1962)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

An astonishing motion picture by any standards, To Kill a Mockingbird only failed to win a Best Picture Oscar because it was in the running against Lawrence of Arabia. The minimalist might call this a "courtroom drama", but that would be selling the film short in so many areas: scope, tone, and thematic content, to name a few. Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird features a lengthy courtroom sequence, but, while that action may be at the heart of the film's storyline, it is only one of dozens of moments that, taken in concert, make this the film that it is.

The movie, made in 1962, is based on the 1960 semi-autobiographical novel by Harper Lee (the only book she would publish). Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, To Kill a Mockingbird was not the focus of a studio bidding war because it lacked many of the "accepted" staples of successful motion pictures - there is no action, no love story, and the villain doesn't get a flashy comeuppance. Nevertheless, producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan were convinced that there was a great story to be told, and, when they shared their vision of the movie with Gregory Peck, Peck agreed to headline the cast. Horton Foote was initially reluctant to write the screenplay because he revered the novel and was afraid of not doing it justice - a concern easily dismissed as unfounded based upon the finished product.

While there are plenty of Civil Rights injustices to be found in the news headlines today, these are minimal compared to what was occurring when To Kill a Mockingbird went into production. The early '60s were a powder keg, with acts of bigotry and racial hatred peppering the evening news as the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. For a film as clear-eyed and unflinching as this one to arrive in theaters during such a turbulent period is nothing short of astounding. To Kill a Mockingbird confronts prejudice head-on, and illustrates that justice is not always color-blind. This is one instance when right does not triumph, and everyone in the audience is aware of it. Today, one wonders if a story like this could be told, or if the tide of political correctness and audience disinclination to appreciate anything with an downbeat resolution would force a change.

As uncertain as the political climate was during the '60s, it was even more volatile in the '30s, which is when To Kill a Mockingbird is set. The movie takes place in the small Alabama town of Maycomb over the span of a little more than a year, bounded by two summers. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is an upright lawyer with unimpeachable ethics. If there were more attorneys like him, the Law could indeed be considered a noble profession. A widower, Atticus has the responsibility of caring for his two children - his 10 year-old son, Jem (Phillip Alford), and his six year-old daughter, Scout (Mary Badham). Jem and Scout are typical children, spending their time going to school and playing outside. And they have a weird fascination with the Radley house down the street, where the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) lives. Boo is the local Bogeyman, a figure who never emerges from his house, but about whom a monstrous legend has developed. As with all such fearful tales, the stories about Boo equally frighten and attract Jem and Scout.

When Atticus takes the case of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, some of the townsfolk turn against him, especially Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the racist father of the so-called victim. For Atticus, unlike many of the inhabitants of Maycomb, Tom's situation is about justice, not skin color. But the South is changing slowly, and there are far more men like Ewell, who see black men as frightening figures. Although Atticus presents a strong case that proves Tom's innocence, the charged man is nevertheless found guilty by a jury that is unwilling to take the word of a black man over that of a white one. Justice is not served, and a tragedy results.

To Kill a Mockingbird presents its story through the eyes of children, and one child in particular - Scout (who is the stand-in for writer Lee). Director Robert Mulligan is unwavering throughout the course of this movie to ensure that the point-of-view remains constant. The actions of all the characters are filtered through the eyes of Jem and Scout. We see Atticus as both a noble lawyer and a loving father. Bob Ewell is a monster. Tom Robinson is a tragic figure. And Boo Radley is the Bogeyman - the personification of mystery that hangs thick in the air on summer nights.

A collateral aspect of this approach allows the filmmakers to examine the difference between how children and adults perceive danger. During one scene, an angry mob advances upon Atticus as he stands watch outside the jail where Tom is being held. From an objective vantage point, this would be viewed as a highly unstable situation, yet Jem and Scout are unafraid. After all, Atticus is there and they are simply standing by his side. Nevertheless, in their encounters with Boo, limited though they may be, the children are frightened witless (even though, as we learn later, Boo is a gentle man, and one of his actions transforms him from Bogeyman to Savior in Scout's eyes).

For the most part, Mulligan's style is subdued. He avoids grandstanding and allows the emotional power of the story to work without overt manipulation. The strongest piece of evidence of this arises in the aftermath of the court scene. Atticus has lost, but has fought valiantly, and, as he gathers his paper and leaves the building, the black observers rise and silently salute him. There is no clapping and the music score does not intrusively demand that we understand that this is an important moment in what it says about justice and race relations.

One of To Kill a Mockingbird's strengths is the powerful sense of time and place it develops. Ironically, for a movie that so forcefully evokes a setting, this was not filmed on-location. Before To Kill a Mockingbird went into production, Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula took a team to Lee's hometown of Monroeville, but found it unsuitable for filming. Modernization had crowed out the quaintness of 30 years prior, rending the town unable to represent itself in the 1930s. So, Mulligan and Pakula had a "replica" of Monroeville constructed on a Universal Pictures backlot. The children's world - a simple street lined by several houses - is the result of movie-making magic. And, when Lee saw it, she commented upon how perfect the illusion was.

Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography is evocative, transporting us to the depression-era deep South. We don't just observe Maycomb from a distance. We feel it. We are there. The opening voiceover monologue establishes the time and place in a tangible manner that the film never loses. And the immediacy of the setting enhances the believability of the characters. It is with these words that To Kill a Mockingbird begins: "Maycomb was a tired old town, even in 1932, when I first knew it. Somehow, it was hotter then. Men's stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frosting from sweating and sweet talcum. The day was 24 hours long, but seemed longer. There's no hurry, for there's nowhere to go and nothing to buy, and no money to buy it with, although Maycomb county has recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself. That summer, I was six years old." Those words alone cast a spell. Coupled with the images, they function as a time machine.

Two well-known names appear in the cast list of To Kill a Mockingbird. The "big" star is Gregory Peck, who, at the time, was in the prime of his career. During the previous three years, he had appeared in a number of high-profile productions, including How the West Was Won, Cape Fear, The Guns of Navarone, and On the Beach. For the role of Atticus, which earned him his only Best Actor Oscar, Peck toned down his approach and gave a contained performance that illustrated Atticus' control while hinting at his great passion for justice and his children.

The second easily recognized name belongs to Robert Duvall. In 1962, Duvall was an unknown. To Kill a Mockingbird was his first role, but his performances as the silent, sensitive Boo brought him to the notice of directors around Hollywood. For Duvall, the role is a challenge, since he is required to convey the essence of Boo through body language and expressions. And Duvall's screen time is limited. Boo is not seen until the end of the film, after Bob Ewell has attacked Scout and Jem. It is in defense of Boo (who saved his children) that Atticus is forced to set aside one of his most cherished principles.

Arguably, the two most important members of the cast are Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, who play Scout and Jem. Despite being non-professionals with no previous experience, these two are excellent and unaffected in their performances. There is none of the awkwardness that is often associated with younger actors (especially those who are being exposed for the first time to movie cameras). The film's success rests in large part upon their effectiveness and ability to identify with their characters.

To Kill a Mockingbird has only one human bad guy (considering, of course, that the pervasive bigotry infecting the South during the '30s is the chief villain) - the racist Bob Ewell, who is portrayed with chilling malevolence by James Anderson, an actor who lobbied for the job, claiming that he understood the character. By all accounts, Anderson had the reputation of being difficult to work with and did not always get along with his co-stars, but his performance speaks loudly. Regardless of how much of Ewell is in Anderson, it's a memorable example of acting. By contrast, Brock Peters plays Tom Robinson with a quiet nobility. The script demands that we never question Tom's innocence, and Peters ensures that this is the case.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a faithful adaptation of one of the 20th century's most important American works of literature. It is also a masterpiece in its own right. This is one of those rare productions where everything is in place - a superior script, a perfect cast, and a director who has a clear vision and achieves what he sets out to do. To Kill a Mockingbird is universally recognized as a classic, and the label is well deserved.

To Kill a Mockingbird (United States, 1962)

Ranked #85 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Mature Themes, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1