Although it has received little critical notice and even less in the way of promotional advertising, a Legacy Series two-disk set of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, with a pristine print and enhanced sound quality, has just been released. Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, with an impeccable script from Horton Foote, a mesmerizing musical score, and many fine performances, To Kill a Mockingbird is a great American film, one that never fails to move and uplift even after many viewings.
In one of the bonus tracks, “A Conversation with Gregory Peck,” Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch, enthusiastically embraces Mockingbird as his favorite among all his films. Also nominated that year was Mary Badham, who played Scout, Atticus’s six-year-old daughter, in whose retrospective voice the story, set in the depression-era South, is told. Atticus, a local lawyer whose wife has died, leaving him to rear Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), decides to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of assaulting a white girl. The drama here is not a whodunit–we know fairly early on that Robinson is innocent and that the girl’s father Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (James Anderson) is the guilty party. Nor is it really about the outcome of the trial; given the blinding prejudice of the majority of whites in the town, Robinson’s conviction is inevitable. Instead, the drama is all about character, about noble action in the face of inexorable defeat. Even more, the drama is about childhood and growing up, about the complex ways in which children come to understand and interpret the wider world.
Of course, the world here is not all that wide; the children inhabit a small, insular, economically strapped town. But that provides them (and the film) with a deeply resonant sense of place, and as with all great art, by attending to the particularities in the right way, we can grasp the universal. In this story, the neighborhood contains an entire universe of significance and material for the education of children and adults alike. As Atticus explains to Scout at one point, when discussing a classmate she’s having trouble with, you have to crawl around in someone else’s skin and see the world from his vantage point. This is precisely the sort of education of the moral imagination that good books and good films provide.
The filmmakers wanted not only to capture the physical limitations of the world of children, but also to suggest the ways in which their imagination had the capacity to transcend those physical limits. In a wonderful commentary track, director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula explain that key to the whole film is the “point of view of the children and their first contact with good and evil.” Instead of employing established Hollywood child actors, whose connection with their own childhood had already been ruptured by acting, the filmmakers sought and found real kids from the South.
The musical theme captures the feel, not so much of childhood as lived, but of childhood recollected: sad, wistful, elegiac, and full of wonder and mystery. Complemented nicely by the score, Scout’s vantage point provides the audience with just the right balance between distance, the sense of being transported to a world we no longer inhabit, and connection, since this is a version of a world we all once inhabited and can once again, at least in imagined recollection.
Scout is a wonderful and memorable character: her tomboyish competitive spirit with her brother and Dill, the boy who comes to visit each summer; her awkwardness and irritation on the first day of school at having to wear a “darn old dress”; her forthrightness in asking questions followed by her perplexity at having said the wrong thing; and her facial expressions, especially her manner of squinting ever so slightly as she tries to see everything more clearly. Her ultimate meeting with Arthur “Boo” Radley, the mythical neighborhood monster turned gentle defender of the innocent, is memorable not just for Robert Duvall’s remarkable presence in a non-speaking role, in which he manages to exceed the expectations that have been built up about his mysterious character over an entire film, but also for the way Scout so quickly recognizes his goodness.
For all its focus on the perspective of children, the film does not idealize childhood or see in it an escape from the complexity of adult life. In marked contrast to contemporary Hollywood’s fascination with an endless adolescence to which both children and adults aspire, Mockingbird reflects a clear distinction between childhood and adult life. The chief task of parents is to prepare children to become responsible, virtuous adults.
Atticus provides precisely such instruction for his children, who because of his reserve are not initially aware of his virtue. Finch is often seen as the embodiment of Southern stoicism, soldiering on in the face of the Great Depression, the loss of his wife, and the legal duties that require him to face directly the insidious racism of his fellow citizens. His greatest moment of nobility comes in defeat, when he exits the courthouse after having lost the case in defense of Tom Robinson. (Peck identified that scene as the one that won him the Oscar.) But, if we mean by stoicism an aloof resignation or an indifference to particular outcomes and individuals, then Atticus is hardly stoic. His warm affection for his children provides the emotional core of the film; at the same time, their almost informal affection for him is evident in the way they call him, not father, but Atticus.
The film’s central lesson, to which the title points, concerns a bedrock principle of natural and human law: the defense of the innocent. When Jem takes an interest in guns, Atticus gives Jem the advice his father gave him. He can shoot inanimate objects but, if he must shoot birds, he must remember that it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird, which causes no harm and only provides pleasure by its singing. That law should be about the protection of the innocent is obvious. Yet in application even a principle as fundamental as this can be, as Aquinas puts it, eroded from the human heart, because of “depraved customs and corrupt habits,” in this case by blinding prejudice.
The makers of Mockingbird achieved remarkable success with their fundamental task: showing children awaken to the complexity of adult virtue and vice. If the film is itself suffused with wistful nostalgia for childhood, then the extras, which constitute a sort of extended testimony to Gregory Peck’s career and character, are likely to induce nostalgia of a different sort, for the passing of old Hollywood, which for all its corruption was also a world that welcomed and at its best fostered the grace, charm, and wit of actors like Gregory Peck.
–Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.