#21 — To Kill a Mockingbird
The novel is a sprawling story about two children growing up in Depression-era Alabama. Because the movie focuses, by necessity, on one episode from the book—the trial of Tom Robinson—many people regard To Kill a Mockingbird as that “racism” book or that “Civil Rights” book, when in reality the book is about all the events that can shape a person’s character. It is about the process by which the children mature—the trial section is just one incident (admittedly, a major one) that comes to define how they view the world.
The children have many adventures involving a scary shut-in who lives next door to them, Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his film debut). As summer turns to fall, Scout and Jem’s father, attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) agrees to defend local black man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been falsely accused of rape. The trial and its aftermath serve to form the children’s characters and give them a glimpse of the grown-up world they are soon to enter.
Gregory Peck has never been this Pope’s favorite actor (watch him chew the scenery in both The Boys from Brazil and The Omen) but he was born to play Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Peck is so good as the moral center of the film, and he never resorts to overacting to make his point. Peck’s Atticus is shy and reserved, and it is this stoicism that gives his performance so much of its power. According to legend, he filmed Atticus’s famous, blistering summation speech in one take, after which the cast and crew broke into spontaneous applause.
Most disc versions of To Kill a Mockingbird also include the film Fearful Symmetry as a bonus feature. Much more than the standard “making of” documentary, the film traces the entire Mockingbird phenomenon: the writing of the book, the making of the film, and the legacy of both works. One of the talking heads in the film is a Southern lawyer who went to law school because he was inspired by the book. Fearful Symmetry is one of the best films of its kind the Pope has ever seen and comes heartily recommended.
To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that taking the unpopular but correct position is only easy in hindsight. Atticus Finch is hated in the town for defending Tom Robinson, but provides the man with a rigorous defense. While the townspeople may be too provincial to change their opinion, his children’s emerging understanding allows them, by the end of the film, to see him as a hero. As actor Kerry Washington recently pointed out on the panel show Real Time, Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King were vilified in their time for opposing the Vietnam War and fighting for Civil Rights, but went on to become icons of the movement. Today, Colin Kaepernick is roundly criticized for exercising his First Amendment rights; will time also judge him differently?
Amen. End of sermon.
To Kill A Mockingbird’s Three Miracles: Horton Foote’s clever screenplay that whittles the lengthy book into a Hollywood feature film; Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score, which is so different than all his other scores and from what other composers were doing at the time; and the performances of Mary Badham and Phillip Alford, which stand as two of the best child performances in movies. Apparently, the two kids could not stand each other off-screen.
“In nomine Jean Louise, et Jeremy, y spiritu Tom Robinson… Amen.”