Power of love to conquer hatred enduring theme of 1962's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
By John P. McCarthy
Catholic News Service
(CNS photos/Universal Studios)
NEW YORK (CNS) -- Of the many exceptional movies released in 1962 -- "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Miracle Worker," "The Trial of Joan of Arc," to name just three -- perhaps none is more beloved than "To Kill a Mockingbird."
In fact, a case can be made for this adaptation of Harper Lee's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as the most admired American film of all time.
Not only is it a sterling artistic achievement, its nuanced look at race relations is revelatory. And audiences continue to find a dual paragon in the character of Atticus Finch -- among the greatest fathers and lawyers ever depicted on screen.
Universal Pictures, celebrating its 100th anniversary, has released 50th-anniversary editions of "To Kill a Mockingbird" on DVD and Blu-ray containing a remastered print and numerous extra features. The latter include an ambitious documentary about the making of the film, a track featuring running commentary by director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula, plus material on the career of star Gregory Peck.
In the most general terms, and while treating numerous other expansive themes, "Mockingbird" deals with the power of love to conquer hatred. It illustrates how frightening yet ultimately liberating it can be when we embrace those whom we consider to be irredeemably different.
In Depression-era Maycomb, Ala. (modeled on Lee's hometown of Monroeville), widower Atticus is raising two children -- outspoken tomboy Scout (Mary Badham), and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) -- aided by his black housekeeper Calpurnia (Estelle Evans).
While the children reckon with neighborhood eccentrics, most notably the spooky Radley family, Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman. Over the course of a year, these two plotlines converge, with the youngsters' urge to demonize the unknown paralleling the quest for justice in a community in which racial prejudice is institutionalized.
Part ghost story, part coming-of-age tale, part courtroom drama, "Mockingbird" considers the ways in which we try to overcome, in Atticus' words, "the ugly things in this world" like fear, poverty and ignorance. On the one hand, it offers an idealized view of the South; on the other, it exposes the harsh reality of that society with a transformative artistic vision.
Shot in black-and-white, and proceeding at a laconic pace matching the tempo of small-town life, the production feels rooted in a particular time and place while simultaneously possessing a timeless, almost fairytale quality. This concretely dreamlike atmosphere was conjured on Universal's Hollywood back lot, reportedly using frame houses displaced by the construction of Dodger Stadium.
Horton Foote's intuitive screenplay and Elmer Bernstein's music score are key ingredients; and director Mulligan's staging has a theatrical immediacy that's enhanced by inventive camerawork.
Peck won the Oscar for his embodiment of Atticus Finch, and the performance represents the perfect melding of actor and character.
In a documentary on the bonus DVD, Peck describes the role as "a blessing and gift from Harper Lee." He made the most of it, transmitting Atticus's affection and firm sense of justice with an entertaining purity. It's also touching to hear about the close bond Peck forged with Badham and Alford, as the young Alabamans were making their excellent screen debuts.
Fifty years later, some may find the movie's handling of race to be too indirect. For instance, there's a public-private split in the behavior of two authority figures. The sheriff and judge each indicate their frustration, if not quite disgust, with the way African-Americans are treated; and their behind-the-scenes actions confirm their relatively enlightened attitudes. Yet neither dares speak out publicly.
Only Atticus has the courage to express his view in an open forum, both by agreeing to defend Robinson and in his stirring closing argument.
Silence enabled the injustice of segregation to endure for as long as it did. And though Lee was clearly challenging the status quo regarding race in the book, the catch-all lessons about tolerance that Atticus imparts to Scout may sound faint to contemporary ears.
From our perspective, after the progress engendered by the civil rights movement, fervently protesting the instruments of discrimination can appear to be the only valid means of dismantling them. Besides which, we're become accustomed to blunter, less subtle modes of expression in our art and popular entertainment.
But the genius of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is that the narrative itself, and the gentle way in which it is realized, are sufficient to convey a strong message against racial injustice. Rather than offer a shrill manifesto, the book and movie exemplify truths on an aesthetic plane using symbols, allegory and metaphor.
When the story ends, outwardly little has changed in Maycomb. Yet momentous change has been wrought in the hearts and minds of Scout and Jem, within members of the black community who stand to salute Atticus as he leaves the courtroom, and possibly within the silent white citizenry.
Likewise, "To Kill a Mockingbird" remains in the literary and cinematic canons because it broadens our sensibilities and sympathies. Few works of art, popular or otherwise, genuinely do that. Rather than lament their scarcity in recent years, perhaps we should interpret it positively, as a sign of progress in our collective morality.
- McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.