To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
“The most beloved Pulitzer Prize book now comes vividly alive on the screen!”
Director: Robert Mulligan
Cast: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton
Synopsis: Atticus Finch, a lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice.
Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, an adaptation of Harper Lee’s autobiographical novel, is one of those movies that almost defies negative criticism, so exalted is its reputation. Its nostalgic recreation of a bygone era obviously means more to American audiences because they are able to more closely identify with its environment and characters, and the fact that it is inspired by real incidents gives it an air of gravitas it might otherwise lack, but when judged solely on its qualities as a movie the lumbering pace of To Kill a Mockingbird, and its laboured illustration of how ignorance breeds fear in all generations, means that it is perhaps underserving of that classic status.
Another of the drawbacks it faces is the casting of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (he took the role after first choice Rock Hudson was unavailable and Jimmy Stewart turned it down). Finch is the lead adult character, the single father to Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford). Atticus is kind, perceptive, charming and wise, patient and dependable. He’s based on Harper Lee’s own father, which might explain why he is such a flawless, saintly figure but which doesn’t make for a realistic character. A more skilled actor might have brought some nuances to the character, a subtle shading, perhaps, that might have hinted at all too human emotions beneath that beatific surface, but it’s a task that’s way beyond Peck’s limited talents. And, yeah, I know he won the Best Actor gong for this movie – but the Academy has awarded the same prize to Ryan O’Neal and Sylvester Stallone – unlike Atticus Finch, that august body isn’t flawless.
To Kill a Mockingbird’s episodic first half focuses mostly on siblings Scout and Jem. Growing up in a small Southern town in the midst of the depression, they spend their summers like most kids – lounging around and getting into mischief. Together with neighbouring kid Dill (a character based on Truman Capote, and played by John Megna) they share a morbid fascination with Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a reclusive neighbour demonised by local rumour and tittle-tattle. Theirs is an irrational fear at which most adults would scoff, and yet this irrational fear and prejudice is mirrored in the town’s treatment of a young black man (Brock Peters) unjustly accused of raping a white woman.
When the rights for To Kill a Mockingbird were up for sale, there were many in Hollywood who felt it was unfilmable. It had no romantic element, no action, and the audience doesn’t witness the villain receiving his just punishment. While Horton Foote’s screenplay is intelligent enough to overcome these points it still struggles to deliver a coherent whole. The children’s story is placed on hold around the mid-point mark as Tom Robinson’s trial gets under way, and isn’t resumed until that strand of the story has concluded. Despite the fact that the two stories do eventually intertwine, watching To Kill a Mockingbird is a little like watching two short movies clumsily welded together.
(Reviewed 26th August 2012)