CLASSIC REEL : To Kill A Mockingbird
Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Bradham, John Megna, Brock Peters, Phillip Alford
Directed By: Robert Mulligan
Directed By: Robert Mulligan
Year of Release: 1962
Plot: When a lawyer defends an African American man wrongly accused of assaulting a white woman during the Great Depression era; his children are gradually exposed to the ugly truth of racial injustice and inequality.
This movie (running time 129 mins) was adapted from Harper Lee’s best selling novel- carefully woven enough to cover the key elements, considering the novel itself has 31 chapters.
As in the novel, the movie is narrated and seen through the eyes of Scout Finch (Mary Badham); a tomboyish girl who lives with her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), their aunt Stephanie and their widowed father Atticus, who is a lawyer. Atticus Finch was vividly brought to life by Gregory Peck; the character’s compassionate and upright personality both as a father and a lawyer makes him the greatest hero in American Cinema and Literature. Peck’s performance was widely lauded audiences and by the novel’s author herself, Harper Lee. According to her, “In that film, the man and the part met.”
Mary Badham, Phillip Alford who played Atticus’ children and John Megna who played their friend Dill, were able to capture the precocious personalities of their characters as Ms Lee described- especially Badham, who served as the story’s narrator. The child actors had great scenes with Gregory Peck.
Sitting on a porch swing with her, Atticus lectures Scout on her rebellious and rather insensitive manner towards a poor schoolmate,
“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
After a boy insults her father for agreeing to defend a black man, Scout beats him up and Atticus, who believed in turning the other cheek and setting a good example for his children, forbade her to fight...for any reason, shocked she used the forbidden ‘n’ word even though she was repeating what the boy had said to her.
Jem is frightened by the victim’s father Bob Ewell (James Anderson) who also called Atticus a “nigger lover”. Atticus tells Jem, “No need to be afraid of him, son. He's all bluff. There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.”
Tom Robinson, the accused man, was played by Brock Peters; who gave a very moving performance during his epic testimony; his character’s tearful words and dilemma glaringly showing the injustices African-Americans faced at the time- treated unequally and profiled because of their race. If Atticus hadn’t stood guard outside the jailhouse, Tom would have been lynched before ever going to trial. How many white lawyers at the time would have done such for a black client?
But Gregory Peck really stole the show when he demonstrated in court that Tom had a crippled left arm; which would have rendered him incapable of beating and holding down a woman he wanted to rape; thus revealing the “victim” Mayella (Collin Wilcox) and her father were obviously liars. His closing statement after Tom’s testimony was the most epic scene of the movie:
“To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place... It has relied instead upon the testimony of two witnesses, whose evidence has not only been called into serious question on cross-examination, but has been flatly contradicted by the defendant. Now, there is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Mayella Ewell was beaten - savagely, by someone who led exclusively with his left. And Tom Robinson now sits before you having taken the oath with the only good hand he possesses... his *right*. I have nothing but pity in my heart for the chief witness for the State. She is the victim of cruel poverty and ignorance. But my pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man's life at stake, which she has done in an effort to get rid of her own guilt. Now I say "guilt," gentlemen, because it was guilt that motivated her. She's committed no crime - she has merely broken a rigid and time-honoured code of our society, a code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst as unfit to live with. She must destroy the evidence of her offence.
But what was the evidence of her offence? Tom Robinson, a human being. She must put Tom Robinson away from her. Tom Robinson was to her a daily reminder of what she did. Now, what did she do? She tempted a Negro. She was white, and she tempted a Negro. She did something that, in our society, is unspeakable. She kissed a black man. Not an old uncle, but a strong, young Negro man. No code mattered to her before she broke it, but it came crashing down on her afterwards. The witnesses for the State, with the exception of the sheriff of Maycomb County have presented themselves to you gentlemen, to this court in the cynical confidence that their testimony would not be doubted, confident that you gentlemen would go along with them on the assumption... the evil assumption that all Negroes lie, all Negroes are basically immoral beings, all Negro men are not to be trusted around our women. An assumption that one associates with minds of their calibre, and which is, in itself, gentlemen, a lie, which I do not need to point out to you. And so, a quiet, humble, respectable Negro, who has had the unmitigated *temerity* to feel sorry for a white woman, has had to put his word against *two* white people's! 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.”
Did the jury really believe Tom was guilty? Probably not. But their verdict was in keeping with the times, it was a black person’s word against a white person’s. They couldn’t be that stupid to think a man with a crippled left arm would be able to savagely beat and rape a woman but Tom’s race was against him and they won’t go against one of their own-the victim’s father. He knew very well Tom was not guilty, he had seen Mayella throw herself at Tom (like Tom testified) and had been the one who beat her before going to the sheriff to accuse Tom of rape.
The judge (Paul Fix) appointed Atticus to take Tom’s case in the first place because he felt that Atticus would be able to convince the jury Tom was innocent. He disliked Bob Ewell, who was the town drunk and an abusive father and strongly suspected he was lying but of course could not voice that out loud. Unfortunately, the jury gave their unfair verdict and there was nothing he could do.
Scout and Jem, already paying for Atticus’ decision to defend Tom, were heartsick by the verdict; finally seeing the ugly truth of their society, thus losing their innocent perspective of the world. Aunt Stephanie sadly told Jem, “There are some men in this world who are born to do unpleasant jobs for us. Your father is one of them.”
Bob Ewell could be said to be a very evil antagonist. First he accused an innocent man of raping his daughter, then tried to intimidate the lawyer of the accused through his children. Even though he was very happy at the verdict and at the news of Tom's death, he still felt very small by Atticus’ actions towards him and his daughter in court. He was a bigot to the core, a no account and a coward as well. He spat in Atticus’ face in front of the children and Tom’s family, probably wanting to instigate a fight but Atticus calmly wiped his face off.
When that didn’t work, he tried to kill Jem and Scout-kill two young children- but was thwarted by the town recluse Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his debut film appearance) after he broke Jem’s arm. He was later found stabbed to death but the sheriff insisted he would say that he fell on his own knife; though it was suspected Jem or Boo had stabbed him. Divine justice for his actions? Maybe.
To Kill a Mockingbird is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time in American Cinema. It glaringly portrayed the racial prejudices and inequality of 1930s society, idealism and the loss of innocence. It’s really saddening how the mere issue of the colour of skin could bring out the worst in a society.
The story's author, Harper Lee, was so impressed with Gregory Peck's performance as Atticus Finch that she gave him her father's pocket watch.
The novel won the Pultizer Prize for Fiction in 1961. The film adaptation won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Art Direction.
Gregory Peck won an Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
Brock Peters, who played the accused man, gave the eulogy during Gregory Peck's funeral in 2003.