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Late To The Party: To Kill A Mockingbird – “As relevant today is it was when it was released”

Late To The Party is a series of reviews ranging from classical masterpieces to modern-day blockbusters where I look to make my confession for the sin of not having seen them before. I seek absolution from the film universe and hope to never again suffer your disdain for my film faux pas. I am Fredo, in the boat. Hail Mary, full of grace.

Read my other Late To The Party reviews

This week’s Late To The Party is the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill A Mockingbird.

Set in the fictional Alabama town of Maycomb during the 1930s, To Kill A Mockingbird tells the story of Atticus Finch and his two young children, Scout and Jem. Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man who has been charged with raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Told through the eyes of young Scout she, along with her older brother Jem and their friend, Dill embark on childhood adventures. They become fascinated with the reclusive Boo Radley, who appears to have left them gifts and trinkets in a tree’s knothole. But as tensions in the town mount over the pending court case, Atticus has to go to great lengths to keep his client safe, to ensure the trial goes ahead.

It’s been many years since I read the book, but the second I heard the adult Scout narrate the opening of the film, I was immediately transported back to the images and memories I had when first reading it. You can feel the dust and the heat. We are reminded of a time when summers did seem endless and free. But the childhood innocence is in stark contrast to the prejudice and hatred that is the core theme of film.

As a movie shown through the eyes of a child, the film’s authenticity and success hinges upon the performances given by the children, and to this day, it still succeeds. The performances may not be as powerful as some modern era child performances, such as Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Drew Barrymore in E.T or even Alex Hibbert in Moonlight. But even after nearly 60 years, they still stand up and can easily take the audience on a convincing journey. Jem, the older brother, played by Phillip Alford brings a wonderful ‘pocket knife and string in his pocket’ kind of strength and charm, guiding and spurring on the other two. John Megna is quirky and quietly heartbreaking as Dill, the boy who claims his absent father is a pilot and will one day fly in and pick him up. Finally, Mary Badham as Scout carries the film. She is fierce, funny, and endearing as a girl who was too young to remember her mother before she died. It is odd that she was clearly the lead actress in the film but was only nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She lost to Patty Duke, but for a considerable time, she was the youngest actress to receive the nomination.

Although Gregory Peck’s performance is often cited as ‘the role he was born for’ and deservedly won him the Best Actor Oscar, he was far from the first choice for the role. Spencer Tracy’s scheduling conflicts thwarted the producers’ first choice to play Atticus Finch and James Stewart turned the role down, concerned the film would be deemed ‘too liberal’ and therefore controversial. I am sure Stewart would have brought his everyman charm to the role, but Peck brings a much needed steely-eyed quality to Atticus Finch. He is a fair man, a principled man, but he is not a man you want to be on the wrong side of. Atticus needs to be warm and accessible for his children, whom he cares for after the death of his wife. He needs to be principled in seeing all people as equal, but he needs a side to him that can stand up to an angry mob or take a gun and shoot a rabid dog without hesitation. As much as I love Jimmy Stewart, I don’t see him conveying all that as wonderfully as Peck did. He was not only perfect in artistic casting terms but also ideologically. Peck was a signatory on a letter protesting the House Un-American Activities Committee and the blacklisting of certain artists in Hollywood. He was placed on Nixon’s infamous enemies list due to his opposition to the Vietnam War, supported nuclear disarmament and gun control. He bonded and remained close friends with Mary Badham, and referred to her as Scout, for the rest of his life. This is one of those occasions when the stars aligned for Peck to so beautifully bring Harper Lee’s ideal of a man, Atticus Finch to life.

Brock Peters does about as much as he can with his limited role and screen time as Tom Robinson, the man accused of such a heinous crime. Indeed, it is telling and indicative of the era the film was made and released in, where the central theme is racial inequality, that all of the black characters are all secondary to the white characters. Yes, the film is told from the perspective of the white Scout but there is more than a hint of ‘white saviour’ to the story. It is fair to look at this in the context of the era in which the book and the film were made. Unfortunately, To Kill A Mockingbird was probably about as self-reflective as white America was prepared to be at the time.

The film is also notable for the film debut of the great Robert Duvall who plays the mysterious Boo Radley, who would of course go on to star in such great films as THX-1138, The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now.

To Kill A Mocking Bird should be a film that chronicled what was a dark and troubled time in America’s and the world’s past, serving as a testimony to film’s power.  Tragically, it is not. Yes, it does remind us of the wonder of being young, endless summers, and childhood adventures, but it is tragic that To Kill A Mockingbird still feels as relevant today is it was when it was released, nearly 60 years ago.

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