Another classic movie which, unbelievably, I had not watched before Tuesday night (a day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as it happens). In 1995, this movie was listed in the National Film Registry and it was listed at number 25 on the American Film Insitute’s 10th anniversary list of the Greatest American Movies of All Time. In 2003, the AFI named ‘Atticus Finch’ the greatest movie hero of the 20th century and the movie won 3 Academy Awards (although how it didn’t win more, I do not know!) – lots of accolades (thanks, Wiki, for those details!) and, for what it’s worth, all justified.
I just want to ‘write’ a few words on this great movie (thanks, Harper Lee, for the masterpiece of a novel!) but there is SO much that I could write. I could study it for a year and write a thesis on it so limiting myself to a few words isn’t easy (I’ve managed to keep it to approx. 1,750 words – it wasn’t easy – I wanted to really study the book/movie in depth!!). Please be aware that there is so much depth, so many issues, so much to say about this movie, that my scant few words represent only the most basic ‘review’ and I really am not doing this great work justice.
(Note: UK English spelling)
The ‘plot’/focal point of the movie – very, very basically (by the way, beware ‘spoilers’ all the way through this blog!):
Alabama, 1930s, Negro, Tom Robinson, is falsely accused of rape and finds himself on trial in a town – in a country – in which racism is rife. Atticus Finch, a widowed white lawyer, determined to bring his children up to respect all people, regardless of their colour, defends Tom in the ugly, hostile town, Maycomb, typical of so many towns and cities across the US at that time. One observation that perhaps dilutes the image of Atticus as a warrior fighting racism, fighting the ‘status quo’, is the fact that he has a black maid. Does that not make Atticus part of the white/black position in society culture? I don’t know. Atticus, Jem and Scout are kind, warm and respectful towards Calpurnia, they seem to treat her as part of the family and I guess therein lies the difference in attitude and conduct between the Finch family and so many other families at the time. I dare say that, then, if one was advertising for a maid, the only interest would have come from the black communities so I guess my observation is a red herring.
The Oscars (1963):
Best Actor (Gregory Peck);
Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote);
Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Black-and-White (Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen and Oliver Emert).
It’s a big shame that Brock Peters didn’t win the ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ Oscar for his portrayal of Negro, Tom Robinson – he was terrific! Ed Begley won it for his performance in ‘Sweet Bird of Youth’, a movie I haven’t seen so I can’t comment. Maybe the time spent on screen was too short to allow Brock to get onto the shortlist but he was superb. His genuineness, his sweetness and kindness, his humanity, his empathy with his fellow ‘man’ regardless of colour, in spite of the ugly racism all around him, it is palpable and moving.
Robert Duvall’s ‘Boo Radley’ (his first credited movie role – maybe his first role, credited or otherwise, I don’t know) gave the 1962 audience a window into what was going to be a career of legendary proportions. In this clip, the children, Scout, Jem and their friend, Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, discover that the person they assumed was deserving of mockery is, in fact, a hero – he saved their lives! A lesson, hopefully, learnt:
Oh, that music….thanks, Elmer Bernstein!!
….and the ending:
The ‘Best Picture’ Oscar went to Lawrence of Arabia in 1963 (the annual Academy Awards recognise movies produced during the 12 months leading up to the voting for the nominations) so I guess it was just a case of unfortunate timing for ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, coming up against that epic. It is interesting to note that now, in 2016, controversy is running amok through ‘Movie Land’, anger at the lack of diversity, the lack of black men and women, amongst the nominees: a whiff, suspicion and outright allegations of racism abound. I can only imagine that as it is suspected today, it was an unarguable fact in the US of the early 1960’s and if that is so, perhaps it is not a surprise that the movie missed out on ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ Academy Awards. Moreover, as this movie reflected the shameful racist cultural infrastructure of the United States in the 1930’s, racism which still thrived in the 1960’s, it was probably more of an embarrassment than a source of pride within ‘the Establishment’ and I suspect that the Academy wanted to, and was pressured to, sweep the movie under that red carpet.
[Thankfully, the movie was further recognised at the Golden Globes:
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama (Gregory Peck)
Best Original Score – Motion Picture (Elmer Bernstein) – the score is as effective and impactful as the script!
Best Film Promoting International Understanding]
Gregory Peck, winner of the ‘Best Actor’ Academy Award for his performance of Atticus Finch (apparently, modelled on Harper Lee’s own father, Amasa ‘A.C.’ Lee, an attorney and Alabama State legislator, whose 1923 defence of a black client partially inspired the novel’s trial – thanks for that, IMDb), his is one of the most hypnotic performances I have seen in any movie. As the doting father, as the altruistic, sympathetic, communal neighbour and lawyer and as a man committed to human rights, civil rights, equality and fairness, as a man driven to right wrongs, he is mesmerising! He knows what he is up against in defending the downtrodden Tom Robinson, an uphill struggle against the endemic racism, trying to convince the all-white, all-male, jury to look beyond their own racism, trying to get them to do the right thing, to declare Tom innocent of rape (which is the only possible genuine/honest verdict in a case devoid of incriminating evidence):
What an impassioned plea to the jury! Finch even tries to use the ‘God’ card to get through to what is probably a ‘God fearing’ jury. I guess Finch’s hope is that by ensuring that the jury is aware that they are about to act in front of God, that they, indeed, ‘do their duty’ (as he implores them to do) – the problem is that the jury thinks that by ignoring the lack of evidence against Robinson, by siding against him, by perpetuating the obscene myth that the white man is superior to the negro, they ARE doing their duty – they believe that that IS their duty in the eyes of God!
The racism was powerfully, frighteningly, portrayed:
So, a dark movie, depressing, dispiriting – but not completely. There are good people in this story, there is hope for the future:
obviously, Atticus Finch but other examples: Judge Taylor (played by Paul Fix), he is, I think, upset by the verdict – watch how he leaves the courtroom and slams the door behind him (seems like that to me):
…and note how Jem’s head goes down when he hears the guilty verdict – he knows it’s a gross injustice and this perhaps reflects Harper Lee’s hope/belief that the next generation will be a fairer, kinder one than the ugly one headed up by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations (I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, ‘Go Set A Watchman’).
Back to Judge Taylor for a moment, we see another ray of light shining from the man when he asks Atticus if he will defend Tom. The Judge knows it’s a big ‘ask’, probably a thankless task insofar as the chances of success are minimal (and the Judge knows that the hatred felt towards Tom will also be directed at Atticus – and his children will be in the limelight – if he not only takes on the job but puts his heart and soul into it). Judge Taylor wants Atticus to defend Tom, he knows that Atticus is the best man for the job. He, Judge Taylor, wants Tom to have the best defence lawyer because he ‘knows’ that he is innocent (unfortunately, I can’t find a You Tube clip of the scene).
Scout is also a beacon of hope, hope for the next generation: in this scene, Scout recognises the leader of a mob (Walter Cunningham, played by Crahan Denton) who want to lynch Robinson. Scout manages to embarrass him and, maybe, make him feel a bit ashamed (watch Scout’s facial expressions – it is clear that she knows what is going on, that she is trying to ‘break’ Cunningham and, thereby, take the heat out of the situation. What a great actress (Mary Badham)!
Another ray of hope for the future, Sheriff Heck Tate (played by Frank Overton):
“There’s a black man (Tom Robinson) dead for no reason, and now the man responsible for it is dead (the racist Bob Ewell). Let the dead bury the dead this time”.
Here, the sheriff is acknowledging that Boo Radley, who saved the children’s lives, killed Ewell. In a courtroom trial, the defence would argue that it happened in a struggle between Boo and Ewell who was attacking the children, Boo trying to disarm Ewell. Of course, we don’t know if Ewell’s death was an accident, if he was stabbed by his own knife in the struggle or if Boo deliberately sought out Ewell to impose justice off his own bat. The point is that the Sheriff knows that if it goes to trial, Boo will be seen by a jury as mentally deficient and that they will despise him for killing one of their own. The Sheriff declares that justice has been done and that it would be against the interests of justice to see Boo put on trial…it would be akin to ‘killing a mockingbird’ (you’ll understand that reference if you have seen the movie).
A great movie! The American Film Institute’s no.1 ‘Courtroom Drama’ – it is interesting, to me, to see that ’12 Angry Men’ is no. 2 on the list – I always assumed that that would be top but I guess it is more of a jury deliberation drama than a courtroom drama [Ed Begley, 1963 ‘Best Actor’ – ‘Sweet Bird of Youth – is a member of the jury in 1957’s ’12 Angry Men’] – and that one of my favourite movies, Billy Wilder’s 1957 ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, a brilliant movie, is down at no. 6, not in the top 3 or 4…..and ‘Judgement at Nuremberg’, way down at no.10?%$#@!
If you haven’t seen ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, I heartily recommend that you do!