The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird

I recently reviewed the movie version of Moby Dick, based off Herman Melville's classic novel, a book that is often on all sorts of high school and college reading lists.  I had to peruse through a fair share of those reading lists in my glorious academic days, and for long stretches in high school/college I avoided reading a lot because my classes forced me to read books I had no interest in reading...classic or not.  So for better or worse, I typically just ignored the classics.  There's also the problem that if I'm told I will like something, I usually don't.  Can't decide if that's a spite thing or not.

One big I've never read and always meant to get around to is a classic in both book and movie form, 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird.  Opposed to some books I never read, this was one I never intentionally ignored. As part of Gregory Peck month on TCM, I caught the movie version of Harper Lee's famous, highly regarded novel, and I can say I wish I would have caught it sooner.  From reviews I read, it is one of the few movies ever that is good as the book it is based on.  Considering how critically popular the novel was, that's saying something.  For me, I loved the movie and am looking forward to reading the book.

In 1932 in a small Alabama town, 6-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) lives with her 10-year old brother Jem (Phillip Alford) and her father, Atticus (Peck), a defense lawyer held in high regard all through the town and the surrounding area.  With her brother and a little boy, Dill (John Megna) who lives next door during the summer, Scout lives the life every kid dreams of; no responsibilities and plenty of time to explore and experience the town.  One summer though, Atticus is given a defendant, black farmer Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) accused of beating and raping a white girl.  It is a case that will almost assuredly tear the town apart, but Atticus treads onward despite everything that goes on around him.  Still naive to the ways of the world, little Scout and Jem look on as they're forced to grow up when they shouldn't have to as they see how things really work.

A coming of age description doesn't seem like enough of a fair shake to this movie.  It is a coming of age story, but it's more than that.  It is an issue picture, a courtroom drama, and a story of human decency and respect.  The first hour is more light-hearted as Scout, Jem and Dill enjoy their summers and their days off.  These scenes have an easy-going way about them, but they serve a purpose as does the first 60 minutes as a whole.  It is to introduce the dynamic among Atticus and his two kids -- his wife died years before -- and more than that, with the whole town.  Then, the second half gets into the issue at hand, delivering a powerful, very moving message.

Read enough books, watch enough movies, you're going to develop opinions on your favorite characters.  Atticus Finch quickly climbed to the top of my list of favorites with Peck doing an all-time best as the soft-spoken, respectable, highly intelligent and unbiased Southern lawyer put in a lose-lose situation.  He is a father, a lawyer, a friend, and most of all, a good man.  He defends a black man accused of rape in a Southern town, knowing some people believe Robinson did his crime before they heard any evidence.  His courtroom speech alone could have won him the Best Actor Oscar (listen HERE, SPOILERS obviously) in a stirring monologue that shows a man near his wit's end. I loved everything about this character from his interactions with his children to the way he does his job no matter the repercussion.  Definitely one of the best written characters ever, and Peck takes it to another level to win his only Oscar.

One of my biggest pet peeves with movies involving kids as major characters is that too often child actors are chosen who can't act.  Well, not a problem here with Badham and Alford, both of them delivering two of the finest performances from a child actor I've ever seen.  Badham as Scout gives her that right combination of toughness as a tomboy and innocence as a girl who still looks at the world in that way; as an innocent.  Alford as Jem is a nice counter, the big brother who always stands up for his sister but isn't beneath socking her when she asks for it.  Jem is years older than his 10 or 11 years, including one of my favorite scenes where he stands down a lynch mob with Atticus.  He might not know what's going on, but he knows it's not right, and he stands with his father to the end.  It's only appropriate that with these two great performances, neither child actor stuck with movies, going on to live normal lives with jobs, friends and family.  Good for both of them.

With a story based in 1932 Alabama, you've got two huge issues to deal with; racism and the Great Depression.  It's clear from the start that Atticus has everything going against him in trying to get Robinson off from the charges against him.  He lays out a strong defense, but it might take more than that with this jury.  In one of the most moving moments in the movie, the Reverend -- a black man -- tells Scout to "Stand up, your Father's passing" as the entirely black audience in the second story viewing area watches Atticus leave the courtroom.  He defended a man who he know is innocent, but to Atticus it doesn't matter much his skin color.  But his effort was there, and that's all that matters.  He tried where others gave up, or much worse, refused to admit something was wrong.

This is Peck's movie, but the rest of the cast is phenomenal, and without a lot of huge names.  I already mentioned Badham and Alford, but also look for Robert Duvall (in his movie debut) as Boo Radley who without a word spoken brings his character to life, Frank Overton as Sheriff Tate, a man stuck in a situation with no real positive conclusion, Estelle Evans as Calpurnia, the Finch's cook who serves as a mom to the kids, Paul Fix as the town judge, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell, the father of the raped girl.  Then there's Elmer Bernstein's great score, and Russell Harlan's great black and white cinematography. A great movie overall, and one truly deserving of its classic status.

To Kill a Mockingbird <----trailer (1962): ****/****

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