Harper Lee, writer of “To Kill a Mockingbird”, one of last century’s most beloved authors, has died last week, aged 89. Today we want to dedicate our weekly review to the homonymous 1962 film based on the novel.
To kill a mockingbird was translated into film by screenwriter Horton Foote and the producer/director team of Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula, it won three Oscars and was unanimously acclaimed by critics and public. The feature is considered a masterpiece in its own right, one of those rare examples of a movie perfectly capturing the essence of its source material without compromising it in any way.
Lee often visited the set during the shootings and did a lot of interviews to support the project. Her involvement in the film, together with the crew’s absolute respect and passion towards her work, were crucial aspects in the making of one of the best ever book-to-screen adaptations.
In 1995 the film entered the National Film Registry and, in 2003, Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Southern lawyer and soft-spoken father Atticus Finch was voted the number-one greatest American movie hero of all-time, remaining an absolute icon of moral character. Peck’s performance constitutes the bedrock of this classic film. As Harper Lee said: “Atticus gave him an opportunity to play himself”.
Set in Maycomb, a racially divided small Alabama town, in the 1930s, the story takes the form of a coming-of-age tale. It explores issues of racial prejudice and the loss of innocence through the eyes of a tomboyish six year-old girl named Scout (Mary Badham) who lives with her 10-year old brother, Jem (Philip Alford), and their widower attorney father, Atticus.
The fisrt half of the film focuses on presenting Scout and Jem as loving, if rowdy, children who care about their father very much but always find themselves in trouble after disobeying him. Together with their friend, precocious young Dill Harris (a character based on Lee’s childhood buddy Truman Capote), they become obsessed with the reclusive village “boogeyman”, Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall in his big screen debut), who inhabits a mysterious house in their neighbourhood. The children feed one another’s imagination with rumours about his appearance and reasons for remaining hidden; they also fantasize about how to get him out of his house.
The second act deals with Atticus’ decision to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell, and the consequences this decision has on his life and the one of his children. A number of people try to pressure him into stepping down from the case, but his pursuit of justice is resolute, he must do it, to teach his children the difference between right and wrong. As expected, Scout and Jem suffer the repercussions of their father’s unpopular but courageous act. Other children mock them at school, calling Atticus a “nigger-lover”. Scout is tempted to stand up for her father’s honour by fighting, but he stops her: “I don’t want you fighting Scout… I don’t care what the reasons are I forbid you to fight”.
Atticus’ strong anti-violence beliefs are exemplified in the famous line about how it is a sin to kill a mockingbird:
“I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This line contains the allusion that gives meaning to the whole story. Mockingbirds are viewed as harmless creatures that do their best to please people by their singing but are defenceless against hunters. The wrongness of killing the bird becomes a metaphor for the wrongness of harming innocent and vulnerable people. And as the story unravels, this message becomes ever more clear and powerful, especially for Jem and Scout.
During the trial the children manage to sneak inside the courtroom and take a seat in the “colored” balcony where they can witness the whole event. One of the most memorable scenes of this superb court sequence is when Atticus virtually destroys the false testimony of Mayella, whom he describes as “the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance”, and reveals the blatant discrepancies in her story demonstrating that she actually made sexual advances toward Tom, and that her father, Bob Ewell, the town drunk, caught her and beat her.
It quickly becomes evident though, that, despite the fact that Robinson is clearly innocent, the all-white jury has no intention of acquitting the black man. Atticus delivers a profoundly illuminating speech asking the jury to cast aside their prejudices and instead focus on Tom’s obvious innocence:
“… The defendant is not guilty – but somebody in this courtroom is. Now, gentlemen, in this country, our courts are the great levellers. In our courts, all men are created equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and of our jury system – that’s no ideal to me. That is a living, working reality! Now I am confident that you gentlemen will review, without passion, the evidence that you have heard, come to a decision and restore this man to his family. In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God, believe… Tom Robinson.”
When the jury comes down with a verdict of guilty, Atticus sadly walks out of the courtroom and the entire black congregation rises in a show of respect for the man who stood up to do what was right. They understand the passion and commitment he had for a cause that was lost even before it started. The injustice eventually culminates with the news that Tom has been shot to death while trying to escape from prison.
Tom Robinson, a man whose only guilt was to feel sorry for a white woman is definitely one of the main symbols of innocence, a harmless mockingbird killed by Evil.
Even after Tom’s death, Bob Ewell does not feel satisfied. Humiliated by the events of the trial, he vows revenge against Atticus and one night he attacks Scout and Jem while they walk home after the school Halloween play, but, in the confusion, someone rescue them by stabbing and killing the aggressor.
Scout’s incredulous reaction when she finds out that her saviour is none other than “Boo” Radley, marks an important passage in the story. She realises her preconception of Boo was completely mistaken based on prejudice and superstition, on a simple fear of “the other”.
In the closing scene when Atticus and the deputy are faced with the decision of what to do with Boo, the man who committed murder to protect the children, it is Scout who encourages her father to cover for him and state that it was an accident. It is the key point of the film where Scout learns from her experience and employs the very lessons she’s learned from her noble father: allowing Boo to be preyed on by the criminal justice system “would be just like killing a mockingbird”.
Boo, a mentally ill child ruined by a cruel father, is one of the book’s most important “mockingbirds”; in saving Jem and Scout from Bob Ewell, he proves to be the ultimate symbol of good.
Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, and their portrayal as the innocent “mockingbirds” is clearly pointed out in the story. The two characters are connected, sharing the same fate of scapegoat for the ignorance and prejudice of this archetypal southern town.
To Kill A Mockingbird is a truly great film, which still delivers an emotional punch after more than 50 years. It is important to note that the film tackled the issue of racial prejudice before president Johnson’s Civil Rights Act in 1964 and before Martin Luther king’s “I have a Dream” speech.
Many films about racial conflict are so much a product of their time that they quickly become historical caricatures; by contrast this has stood the test of time.
A classic of its time and an essential viewing in ours.
In Harper Lee’s words “a work of art”.