A YouTube film clip of a section of the movie based on Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird", as background for this entry. May this literary gem be read and watched for another fifty years.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Gregory Peck, black and white, 1962
This film is an excellent black and white adaptation of Harper Lee’s book of the same name. The acting, particularly by Gregory Peck (and a cameo by a young Robert Duval), brings out all the pathos, bathos and grit of small town Southern life in the 1930’s. The story itself is an unusual combination, narrated by Peck’s film daughter Scout (and presumably Lee herself), of a coming of age story that we are fairly familiar with and the question of race and sex in the Deep South (and not only there) with which we were (at the time of the film’s debut in 1962) only vaguely familiar. That dramatic tension, muted as it was by the cinematic and social conventions of the time, nevertheless made a strong statement about the underlying tensions of this society at a time when the Southern black civil rights struggle movement was coming into focus in the national consciousness.
The name Atticus Finch (Peck’s role) as the liberal (for that southern locale) lawyer committed to the rule of law had a certain currency in the 1960’s as a symbol for those southern whites who saw that Jim Crow had to go. Here Finch is the appointed lawyer for a black man accused of raping a white women of low origin- the classic ‘white trash’ depicted in many a film and novel. Finch earnestly, no, passionately, in his understated manner, attempts to defend this man, a brave act in itself under the circumstances.
Needless to say an all white jury of that black man’s ‘peers’ nevertheless convicts him out of hand. In the end the black man tries to escape and is killed in the process. In an earlier scenario Finch is pressed into guard duty at the jailhouse in order to head off a posse of ‘white trash’ elements who are bend on doing ‘justice’ their way- hanging him from a lynching tree. On a mere false accusation of a white woman this black man is doomed whichever way he turns. Sound familiar?
The other part of the story concerns the reactions by Finch’s motherless son and tomboyish daughter to the realities of social life, Southern style. That part is in some ways, particularly when the children watch the trial from the “Negro” balcony section of the courtroom, the least successful of the film. What is entirely believable and gives some relief from the travesty that is unfolding are the pranks, pitfalls and antics of the kids. The tensions between brother and sister, the protective role of the older brother, the attempt by the sister to assert her own identity, the sense of adventure and mystery of what lies beyond the immediate household that is the hallmark of youth all get a work out here. But in the end it is the quiet dignity of solid old Atticus and the bewildered dignity of a doomed black man that hold this whole thing together. Bravo Peck. Kudos to Harper Lee.