#8 — To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962)
The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird arrived about two-and-a-half years after the novel’s original publication. Both are so firmly ensconced in the American canon that it can be hard to conceive of what this story must have seemed like when it was still sharply, shockingly new. The fiction’s consideration of the racial divide in the United States–especially in small town Alabama, where it’s set–wasn’t part of our regrettable history with remaining ripples, reaching different heights depending on who’s looking at them. It was the roiling agony of current events, the film released less than a month before Alabama governor’s infamously vile inaugural call for “segregation forever,” four months before Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birmingham arrest led to one of the most important pieces of correspondence in the country’s history and eight months before the March on Washington. To Kill a Mockingbird may have been set a few decades earlier, but it was truly about the living pain of a nation. Surely the film’s almost immediate veneration didn’t play out the same way in the American South.
A significant part of the film’s brilliance stems from its commitment to broad-based decency. If it were solely about the main plot–the courtroom defense of black man Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who’s been accused of raping a white teenaged girl–the film would likely still be inspirational, stirring and important, although it could easily become overly pious, taking on the stultifying tinge that makes any number of self-important Hollywood prestige dramas transform into the cinematic equivalent of medicine. When Atticus Finch, played with splendid stentorian gravitas by Gregory Peck, takes Tom’s case, it is clear it’s less an act of heroism than a expression of his prevailing self, the person who accepts trade for legal services and insists on understanding when a boy from a impoverished family indulges in too much luxurious syrup when he’s a guest at the Finch dinner table. The life of injustice that Tom is doomed to face is one square in the quilt of human dismay, and Atticus meets it all with grave, understated compassion.
The adult tensions are contrasted with the unabashed freedom of youth, as much of the film’s drama is seen through the eyes of Atticus’s children, their classmates and neighbors. The rhythms of childhood are beautifully rendered, screenwriter Horton Foote and director Robert Mulligan pulling details from Lee’s novel and realizing them with a looseness that translates as purity and truthfulness. The kids are guileless but endlessly curious, especially Atticus’s daughter, Scout (Mary Badham). It is her gradual realization of the complicated, often contradictory workings of the world that gives the film its aching, lovely soul. Mulligan wisely brings restraint to scenes involving Scout’s mounting wisdom, especially in the closing scenes when the folly of judgment and preconception is driven home by the necessary reassessment of town outcast Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut). If nothing else, there’s something wonderful about scenes of great suspense and worry playing out while Scout is housed within a bulky smoked ham Halloween costume. In less assured hands, this element could undercut the seriousness of the film. Instead, Mulligan’s command of tone assures that is instead enhances the story by emphasizing the fullness of the community and the lives of those who reside in it. To Kill a Mockingbird is relentlessly, deeply real. Indeed, it comes across as real and honest of a reflection of the American character now as it must have seemed in 1962, when the screen may as well have been a mirror.