I don’t think I will ever tire of watching To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t remember seeing it in the theater; I don’t believe I ever did. I would have been awfully young for this movie in 1962, about the age of the boy, Jem, at the start of the film. Later, in my teen years, I read Harper Lee’s excellent book. At about the same time one of the local TV stations would sometimes broadcast this movie on my favorite late night movie show. I watched it as often as I could. Now I own a DVD I can play whenever I like.
This is one of the most celebrated films ever made in Hollywood about the American south. However, although it has some elements that make it particularly Southern, it has many more which are more generally American. I grew up in a small city much like the one in which the movie is set, but several decades later than the time of the movie. By then some things had changed a bit: I never wore a tie to school, I only rarely saw a horse on the streets in town, and not every house had an open porch with a swing. However, it was still more like the world of this movie than the world of today. Parents were generally respected, manners were usually taught and childhood was an adventure without video games, and often set outdoors.
‘Scout,’ (Jean Louise Finch – Mary Badham) and ‘Jem’ (Jeremy Finch – Phillip Alford) live what would today be considered a dangerous life for children. Jem has a tree house without walls or railings, they roll inside a tire down the street – with no helmet, but Scout knows how to read before she starts school. She reads to her father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), nightly. Atticus may sum up much of the difference in attitude between the world of the movie and the world of today when he says: “There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.” When parents perceive that it isn’t possible to totally shelter their children, instead they usually attempt to prepare them for life.
Gregory Peck has played many roles, but Atticus Finch is easily his best and he portrays him very well. Robert Mulligan’s direction is as exceptional as Peck’s acting. The acting of the children is phenomenally good. This movie also features Robert Duvall in his first screen appearance, in an important but non-speaking part.
One is introduced to the town and the people in it from the point of view of the young girl, Jean Louise or more commonly ‘Scout.’ Although, there are scenes without her, she also adds narration on occasion. After the main characters are introduced the central events of the movie begin when Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) visits Atticus’ porch one evening and tells him that Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) has been arrested for raping Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Judge Taylor assigns Atticus to be Tom’s attorney. Much of the movie centers on the trial, but there is more to the movie than the trial.
I often see new aspects of this film with each viewing. One thing that came to mind with my last viewing is this: To Kill A Mockingbird affirms the superiority of private justice over that of the government. Even the reasonably decent government officers who are often appalled by the results of the system they support, end up seeing the appropriate nature of private solutions. This is perhaps best exemplified by Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) saying: “I may not be much Mr. Finch, but I'm still sheriff of Macomb County. And Bob Ewell fell on his knife. Good night sir.”
If you’ve never watched To Kill A Mockingbird you have been missing a treat. It is a movie that is often promoted as a demonstration of tolerance, good will and nobility. It is all that, but it is also more. Try watching it again and note that the tragedies either come from the actions of people acting for the state or using the state to cover their own bad actions. Even when well-intentioned state agents act in beneficial ways, when they act most effectively, they act to avoid involving the state.