To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Release Date: December 25th, 1962 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Mulligan Actors: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Frank Overton, Robert Duvall, Richard Hale
tticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer in Macon County, Alabama, an area hit hard by the Great Depression. He oftentimes trades legal work for consumables from farmers and neighbors who can’t afford to use money. This starts to establish his unwavering generosity and amicable nature; a simple exchange with the loud, crotchety old lady next door, Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White), further exemplifies his ability to communicate decently with anyone and to show respect without question or anticipated reciprocation. He has two children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), who scurry about the town getting into bits of trouble with newfound friend Charles Baker “Dill” Harris (John Megna), a puny boy staying in town for the summer. Although the kids have no money, nothing to buy, and nowhere to go, they craft their own fun with a mission to explore the nearby house of Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a legendary boogeyman that supposedly attacked his parents with a pair of scissors, but was never sent to an institution.
Meanwhile, Atticus is appointed as the defense attorney for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man indicted for raping the white daughter of Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Despite being right-handed and having no use of his left arm due to a cotton gin accident, Tom is still fingered by Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) as her attacker. When the trial begins, there’s no evidence of the crime having taken place, a dependence on unreliable witness testimony, an abundance of circumstantial evidence, and an all-white jury. While Atticus wishes to keep all the ugly things in the world away from his children, he’s unable to keep them out of the courtroom, where they behold a flawed system at work, fanned by forceful prejudices.
The film is narrated by Scout, after she’s grown up, recounting the events of her childhood in 1932 when she was just six years old. The older, unfamiliar voice is one of the very few elements that doesn’t fit seamlessly into the production (akin to “True Grit’s”  purposeful dropping of the narration), although it does bookend the feeling and lesson of righteous societal evolution over time. Based on Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel, with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Horton Foote, “To Kill a Mockingbird” focuses just as much on the activities of the youngsters and their adventures with Boo as it does with racism and tensions in the South. In fact, the first half is dedicated solely to developing the characters and their places in a biased sector, as well as to see dark events through the eyes of innocent outsiders. The second half presents a powerful, compelling courtroom drama that showcases ignorance, diversion of guilt, dreaded cultural displacement, and standing up for justice even when it is conspicuously absent.
Most of the film’s distinction can be attributed to the story itself, which is so masterfully orchestrated that it’s difficult not to be affected by the potency of its themes. While the runtime is longer than necessary, cinematic attention is given to details, faithfulness to the source material, and intentional pacing to convey the mood. And then there’s Gregory Peck in his most memorable performance, providing a tour de force of bravery, honor, and fairness. For this setting of adversity, Finch establishes a surprising amount of civility and reasoning that marks him as a role model (and parenting champion) of the grandest sort. With Peck’s portrayal (which also won an Oscar), the careful scripting, and the manner in which the role is actualized, it’s no wonder Atticus Finch was named the #1 greatest screen hero of all time by the American Film Institute.
– Mike Massie