Top 100 Movie Review: No. 043 – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Ranked 043 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during May 2020.

Cast: Gregory Peck (Atticus Finch), Mary Badham (Scout Finch), Phillip Alford (Jem Finch), John Megna (Charles Baker “Dill” Harris), Frank Overton (Sheriff Heck Tate), Rosemary Murphy (Miss Maudie Atkinson), Ruth White (Mrs Dubose), Brock Peters (Tom Robinson), Estelle Evans (Calpurnia), Paul Fix (Judge John Taylor), Collin Wilcox (Mayella Ewell), James Anderson (Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell), Robert Duvall (Arthur “Boo” Radley)
Director:  Robert Mulligan
My rating: 9.5 / 10

The film is narrated by Scout Finch (Mary Badham) a young child of Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck). Young Scout and her slightly older brother Jem Finch (Phillip Alford) live in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the early 1930s with the town impacted by the Depression. 

Despite losing their mother four years earlier the children enjoy a happy childhood, cared with great loved by their father and the family’s African American housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). During the summer, Jem, Scout, and their young friend Dill, who stays with his aunt during the summer, play games.  The discuss the subject of Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), an odd, reclusive neighbour who lives with his father a ‘mean old man’ The children have never seen Boo, who rarely leaves the house.  Over the course of the movie we learn that Boo has been leaving small objects for Jem which are first seen in the movie titles.  These objects include a broken pocket watch, an old spelling bee medal, a pocket knife, and two carved soap dolls resembling Jem and Scout.

Atticus strongly believes all people deserve fair treatment, in turning the other cheek and to defend what you believe. Atticus’ is a local lawyer and many of his clients are poor farmers who pay for his legal services in  fresh produce, firewood, and so on. 

Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Atticus accepts the case, heightening tension in the town and causing Jem and Scout to experience schoolyard taunts. One evening before the trial, as Atticus sits in front of the local jail to safeguard Robinson, a lynch mob arrives. Scout, Jem, and Dill unexpectedly interrupt the confrontation. Scout, unaware of the mob’s purpose, recognizes Mr. Cunningham who had earlier dropped off some produce to pay her father and asks him to say hello to his son Walter, her classmate. Cunningham becomes embarrassed, and the mob disperses.

The children watch the trial from the ‘black’ area, a balcony overlooking the court.  At the trial, it is alleged that Tom entered the Ewell property at Mayella’s request to chop up a chifforobe and that Mayella showed signs of having been beaten around that time. Among Atticus’ chief defensive arguments is that Tom’s left arm is disabled, yet the supposed rapist would have had to mostly assault Mayella with his left hand before raping her. Atticus noted that Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), is left-handed, implying that he beat Mayella because he caught her seducing a young black man.

Atticus also states that Mayella was never examined by a doctor after the supposed assault. Taking the stand, Tom denies he attacked Mayella but states that she kissed him against his will. He testifies that he had previously assisted Mayella with various chores at her request because he “felt sorry for her” – words that incite a swift, negative reaction from the prosecutor and others present.

In his closing argument, Atticus asks the all-white male jury to cast aside their prejudices and focus on Tom’s obvious innocence. However, Tom is found guilty. As Atticus exits the courtroom, the black spectators in the balcony rise to show their respect and appreciation.

When Atticus arrives home, Sheriff Tate informs him that Tom was killed during his transfer to prison, apparently while attempting to escape. Atticus, accompanied by Jem, goes to the Robinson home to relay news of Tom’s death. Bob Ewell appears and spits in Atticus’ face.

Autumn arrives, and Scout and Jem attend an evening school pageant in which Scout portrays a ham. After the pageant, Scout is unable to find her dress and shoes, forcing her to walk home with Jem while wearing the large, hard-shelled costume. While cutting through the woods, Scout and Jem are attacked. Scout’s cumbersome costume protects her but restricts her vision. The attacker knocks Jem unconscious but is himself attacked (and killed) by a second man unseen by Scout. Scout escapes her costume and sees the second man carrying Jem towards their house. Scout follows them and runs into the arms of a frantic Atticus. Still unconscious, Jem has his broken arm treated by a Doctor.

Scout tells Sheriff Tate and her father what happened, then notices a strange man behind Jem’s bedroom door. Atticus introduces Scout to Arthur Radley, whom she knows as Boo. It was Boo who rescued Jem and Scout, overpowering Bob Ewell and carrying Jem home. The sheriff reports that Ewell, apparently seeking revenge for Atticus humiliating him in court, is dead at the scene of the attack.

Atticus mistakenly assumes that his young son killed Ewell in self-defense, but Sheriff Tate realizes the truth – Boo killed Ewell defending the children. His official report will state that Ewell died falling on his knife. He refuses to drag the painfully shy, introverted Boo into the spotlight for his heroism, insisting it would be a sin. As Scout escorts Boo home, she draws a startlingly precocious analogy: comparing the unwelcome public attention that would have been heaped on Boo, with the killing of a mockingbird that does nothing but sings. 

What’s to Like
The story, the characters, Atticus Finch quiet determination to do what is right

What’s not to Like
Nothing although I can understand modern audience not liking the derogatory terms used to describe African Americans or Atticus Finch being described as a ‘N#### lover’.

I had read To Kill A Mockingbird while in primary school so I recalled the general plot but I doubt I understand fully the themes covered including class, poverty, liberty, racism and justice, watching the movie was a good refresher.  The acting is first rate especially from the child actors who at least one is in every scene, Mary Badham in particular as Scout was an outstanding performance.  Gregory Peck is also outstanding and thoroughly deserved his academy award.  

The book won a Pulitzer Prize and was published in 1960 with the movie coming out only two years later.  The subjects were a little ahead of the time published and produced but America was about to grapple with it’s history of racism during the turbulent 1960s.  The movie is frame from the point of view of the Finch children with Scout narrating at several points.  We are seeing the movie from innocent eyes, and innocent slowly being lost but not gone by the end of the movie.  

Atticus Finch is consider one of the great literacy hero’s, he is a widower who is kind and always gentleman to all around him.  A man rising his two children with the help of African American housemaid who works as a lawyer in a poor town in which he is often paid with food stuff as the farmers in the area are too poor to pay in cash.  Other than representing an oppose and innocent black man the movie also tackles a mentally challenged young adult who is shunned by the community and mostly locked up during the day.  Both of these individuals are misunderstood and few can put themselves in their shoes but Atticus and his children try.   

Even with the unfair guilty verdict and later death of the innocent Tom Robinson, Atticus and the African American community keep their dignity and composure while the accuser can’t accept being shown up as a poor man who beats his daughter and probably got an innocent man killed.

Surprisingly given the topics this is still an entertaining movie, probably due to interspersing the tough topics with the games and innocence of the children who we see this world though.  A masterclass in how to convey a difficult topic without over preaching and losing the audience.

Academy Awards

  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Gregory Peck) – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Horton Foote) – winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black-and-White – winner
  • Best Picture – nominee
  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Mary Badham) – nominee
  • Best Director (Robert Mulligan) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography, Black-and-White – nominee
  • Best Music, Score – Substantially Original – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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