To Kill a Mockingbird is an indelible portrait of courage and principle seen through the eyes of three children in small, Depression-era Southern town. It is also a lovingly faithful adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel.The early part of the film focuses on the two children of windower Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), Jem (Phillip Alford) and especially Scout (Mary Badham), a precocious tomboy who only begrudgingly exchanges her coveralls for a dress when it’s time to start first grade.
While their father is off to work, leaving them in the care of their nanny, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans), the two children and their friend, Dill (John Megna), go about the business of being kids, which for them revolves around getting a glimpse of the neighborhood boogey-man, “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall). They’re curious about their father’s work as an attorney, but they don’t let it intrude on the truly important things in life.
If there is one reason that the first half of this film works so brilliantly is that the three central characters, Scout, Jem and Dill, talk and act like children, not like the shrunken adults that often populate many contemporary movies. Scout, whose memory this story is meant to be, speaks her mind in the way a six-year-old would and asks the questions that a child her age would ask. The film’s great strength is that it preserves as much of Harper Lee’s original dialogue as possible, giving To Kill a Mockingbird the benefit of her native’s ear for the way Southern people of the era spoke.
The film changes direction about half-way through when Atticus begins working to defend a local black sharecropper, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a poor white woman named Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). The woman’s father, Bob (James Anderson), is furious that Atticus is actually mounting a defense, calling him a “nigger lover” at every opportunity. Others in town would rather that Atticus not work too hard to defend Tom, but he cannot bring himself to do anything less than his best, feeling it undermine his moral authority to teach his children right from wrong. His defense easily shreds the prosecutions case against Tom and, in a more just time and place, the jury would not have had time to sit down before returning an acquittal.
Gregory Peck’s performance, both as the loving father of Scout and Jem and as the doggedly upright attorney, is one of the best in the history of American cinema. Atticus Finch defined Peck in the mind of the public, leaving him with the reputation is one of Hollywood’s true “good guys.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Atticus Finch beat out Indiana Jones and James Bond as the AFI’s number one screen hero.
On the strength of Peck’s memorable performance and it faithfulness to Harper Lee’s prose, To Kill a Mockingbird is as close to an essential American movie as most have come.
Macomb was a tired old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it.