This wonderful movie is based on the Harper Lee book of the same name. They asked Harper to write the screenplay but she turned them down because she was busy with another writing task. They then asked Horton Foote to write the screenplay and he at first was hesitant because he liked the novel so much he didn’t want to have to change it in any way. However, Foote changed his mind and wrote a wonderful screenplay based on the book and won the Academy Award for his efforts. Harper came to the studio during the shooting and expressed that she loved what they were doing with her book. By this time the book had already sold some 9 million copies. What is interesting is that Hollywood was initially reluctant to make the book into a movie, as they didn’t see where it had much in the way of action and sex or love interests to make it successful as a movie. As it turned out, they ended up making one of the greatest films ever made and it is listed as #34 in the top 100 movies of all time by The American Film Institute and was nominated for numerous Academy Awards.
The movie stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a Southern lawyer, a widower raising two young children, Scout (played by Mary Badham) and Jem (played by Phillip Alford). The moviemakers wanted realism so they went to Birmingham, Alabama and tested various children for the roles. Badham had zero acting experience and Alford had only a little non-movie acting experience and they both did wonderfully in the movie. (They also acted after this---Badham in two films and Alford in one---however, they soon returned to their normal lives instead of getting caught up in the insanities of Hollywood. Badham went on to marry and raise children. (However, it is interesting to note that her brother is John Badham the director of such films as Saturday Night Fever and Blue Thunder.) Alford returned to his native Birmingham and when he grew up he eventually owned a clothing store and a bar there. Although they wanted to film the movie in the South, they couldn’t find the kind of neighborhood in Alabama they wanted, so they built it on the studio’s back lot in Hollywood.
Harper Lee’s novel is based on her own childhood. Harper is the Scout character in the movie just as Atticus was her real father. Dill, in the book, the young boy who was visiting the neighbor for the summer, in real life was Truman Capote. It is truly fascinating that two of the children in the book and movie turned out to be famous authors!
Brock Peters plays Tom Robinson, the African American accused of raping a white girl. In the movie, when Robinson takes the stand and proclaims his innocence, he begins to cry with tears running down his face. In real life Peters had suffered indignities and racial prejudice and the tears were very real ones for him as he connected with his own feelings of oppression. When Gregory Peck saw this happening he was unable to continue looking at Peters as the cameras rolled because he knew he would also cry if he did. Peck won both the Golden Globe and Academy Awards for his portrayal of Atticus and this is his favorite film from his long and highly successful career.
The film was nominated for other Academy Awards such as best director (Robert Mulligan) and best picture. Mulligan lost out to David Lean, director of Lawrence of Arabia, which won also as best picture and is ranked #5 by The American Film Institute).
This movie was the first one that Robert Duvall made. He does a wonderful job as Arthur “Boo” Radley---even though he doesn’t speak a single line in the movie as his character is mentally challenged.
Peck was born Eldred Gregory Peck in 1916 in La Jolla, California. He is a graduate of San Diego State University and was a premed student at the University of California at Berkeley when he became interested in an acting career. He then enrolled at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse and made his Broadway debut in 1942. He didn’t go into the military during World War II due to a spine injury. Before winning the Oscar in 1962 for Mockingbird, he was nominated for the award four times for The Keys of the Kingdom, The Yearling, Gentleman’s Agreement, and Twelve O’Clock High.
This movie stars Gregory Peck, but the focus of it from the beginning to the end is the children. Occasionally we have a woman’s voice-over telling us about what is happening. This is the storyteller, the adult woman looking back at her childhood and telling you what it was like growing up in the South in depression era 1932.
The kids were intrigued by, attracted to, as well as fearful of Boo Radley who was shut up in one of the houses in their neighborhood. It is a story of children facing their fears. At one point their father, Atticus, is sitting on the steps of the jailhouse protecting his client when the lynch mob comes. The children are watching and come over and stand by their father. Atticus realizes that this is a very tense and dangerous moment and tells them to go home and they refuse to do so. He has raised them to be independent and thoughtful children and they are responding accordingly and in doing so they help to diffuse the situation.
The children don’t watch television, obviously, because it wasn’t invented. They created their own games and passed the slow long days accordingly. This helped to create an imagination for them; it helped make them someone who was actively, rather than vicariously, involved in life.
Remember, this movie is being made in 1962. Although the plot is set in 1932, you can’t avoid the relevance of the messages about racism and bigotry to what was going on in 1962. However, the movie is not just about racism, it is about all forms of discrimination. Boo Radley, the feared and isolated mentally challenged neighbor who is kept locked up in his house, by the end of the movie becomes the beloved hero who has saved the children from the most evil character in the film.
Where does the title come into the story? When discussing his first gun that his father gave to him, Atticus tells his children that he was told that it was “a sin to kill a mocking bird” because the bird did no one any harm. At the end of the film, Scout repeats this line to her father as it relates to Boo Radley. Boo is now seen as the mockingbird that should be protected.
What I love about this movie is that it presents one of the greatest role models ever portrayed on film. Atticus Finch is everything a father should be. Strong, wise, empathic, gentle, giving of his time to his children, highly skilled at anger management (in one scene he is spat upon by the movie’s evil character and although it is clear he could beat the man to a pulp and be justified in so doing, he elects to walk on), and most of all a man of fairness, an honorable man.
For me, the most stirring moment of the film is right after the trial has ended. The black man he has clearly proven is innocent, is declared guilty by the jury. The Southern courthouse has a main floor where the white citizens are seated and a balcony (heat rises so that this is the most uncomfortable area in a Southern courthouse of 1932 without any air-conditioning) is where the black citizens are seated. Atticus has gathered his papers and all the white citizens have left so the main floor is empty. All the blacks have remained and as he leaves they all stand in respect. Scout is sitting on the floor in the balcony next to an elderly black minister who tells her: “Stand up, your father’s passing.”
Stand up, your father’s passing. All of us need to stand up and honor the best amongst us. All of us need to stand up to bigotry and live honorable lives. For me that moment captures the power of this film and encourages me to live an honorable life. When the film came out it caused some young people to want to become lawyers and to this day you will find lawyers who see Atticus as their role model. Unfortunately, not enough behave as Atticus. However, you can elect to behave in this way. The choice is always waiting for you. Don’t hesitate. Stand up!
The movie is making us realize that our children are watching us. We are their role models.