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To Kill a Mockingbird


To Kill a Mockingbird (1963)

I had the privilege of viewing To Kill a Mockingbird in the theater recently as part of TCM and Fanthom’s collaboration that puts classics on big screens around the country for one-day events. The theater I visited was stuffed with viewers, which is great to see for an old movie even if it is something as popular as this one.

I’m not sure how long it had been since I had seen To Kill a Mockingbird from start to finish. I saw it for the first time as a high schooler after reading the book in school and thought it was a good flick then. But to see it as an adult with a better appreciation for cinema, strikes a much stronger chord.

The plot is almost two separate stories, with the trial of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) interrupting the tale of Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford) growing up in small-town Alabama with their father as a top-notch role model. It is the trial portion of the story that is the most impactful for me. Not only is the unjust trial of a black man for the rape of a white woman frustrating to no end, but Atticus’ (Gregory Peck) handling of the case is remarkable. The trial is emotionally draining for both us and Atticus and the unfortunate end always draws tears.

Somehow Atticus seems to be the only person who thinks as we do today on this matter who is also brave enough to seek out and defend the truth. The ignorance of Mr. Ewell (James Anderson) and his disgusting nature is unbearable to witness as is the willingness of the townsmen to convict a man before he has had his day in court.

Scout’s interference when a mob attempts to access Tom at the jail before the trial also grabs at my throat. These angry men, some of whom would claim to be friends with Atticus, place the attorney in a precarious position, but the innocent and ignorant bliss of a child is enough to shame the aggressors into a retreat. The moment is unforgettable.

But life goes on after the trial and picks up where the beginning portion of the movie left off. The surrounding story depicts the adventures Scout and Jem have, especially during their summers out of school. In the summers they are joined by a visiting boy Dill (John Megna) who alters Scout’s relationship with Jem. Whereas the siblings seem to have existed as equal partners in crime, the arrival of Dill into the mix puts Scout in a subordinate position where she is regularly reminding the boys that their mischief is not a good idea and being consistently ignored.

One of the regular sources of curiosity is the Radley home. The Radleys have a son that the children believe to be a lunatic who was once held captive in the basement of the jail until he became sick from the dampness. The legend creates a Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) far more terrifying than the man who would intervene and save the lives Scout and Jem. Again, Atticus seems to be the only person in town who takes a rationale and honest view of the boy, which we see at the film’s end with his all-so-natural introduction of one Arthur Radley.

But despite the fear the children face at the thought of Boo, the mysteries related to their interaction with the home suggest to us that the man is a kind, gentle sort. The surprise untangling and folding of Jem’s pants that had been stuck in the Radley fence and the conveyance of trinkets in the hollow of a tree are only friendly gestures by a man living in a lonely world.

The brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird and its on-screen enactment is that it reminds all of us about being a child. We might not have grown up in a small town in the 1930s, but we all experienced adventure, spooky legends and fear of some unknown. We also all wish we had parents –and perhaps some of us did– like Atticus Finch. Although perfectly capable of disciplining his children for their disobedience, he approaches every situation with a level head and utmost calm. The children plainly respect their father as much as they love him.

Despite the impressive look of the little town, it is not a place you can visit. Universal built it on the studio backlot after surveying the actual town of Harper Lee’s book, Monroeville, which had seen many changes in the 30 years since the story’s setting. The studio even went so far as to disassemble and reestablish clapboard houses on the set, which gives it much of its realism. The movie won an Oscar for Best Art Direction. Among its other awards were Best Actor for Peck and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

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