Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Written by: Horton Foote
(based on the novel TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee)
Starring: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White, Brock Peters, Estelle Evans, Paul Fix & Robert Duvall
What can I say about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD that hasn’t already been said? Nothing, but that won’t stop me from reviewing this classic. Tackling complex issues and packed with honest emotions, this film is a complete and utter masterpiece. An honest adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel, MOCKINGBIRD is downright perfect in every way and should be on a list of essential movies to see before you die. It’s a fantastic, deeply moving, and all-around wonderful piece of cinema.
Set in 1930s Alabama, the film follows the young lives of two siblings: tomboy Scout (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford). The two children live with their widowed father, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), who works as a lawyer. Atticus does his admirable duty to the best of his ability and believes that everyone is equal…even when neither of these things are necessarily popular. His latest client is Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who’s been accused of raping a white teenage girl. As Atticus’s case moves forward, Scout and Jem witness unwavering determination and good values through their father. The brother and sister also take up spying on their mysterious, reclusive neighbor, Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall).
One thing that’s instantly remarkable about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is how well made it is. The period setting is perfectly captured on a budget of 2 million at the time (15.7 million today) as the depression-era conditions are totally believable. The sets are so realistic that I wouldn’t be surprised if director Robert Mulligan went out and shot this entire film in a small country town that hadn’t yet been touched by the hands of time. Moving on to another technical aspect, the score perfectly captures the mood of this film. The main theme is among my favorite movie themes of all-time and instantly conveys what kind of story this is.
Gregory Peck is perfect as Atticus Finch and won a well-deserved Academy Award for his performance. Author Harper Lee was so impressed by Peck’s talent that she actually declined the rights for any stage play of her novel to be produced, because he captured the character exactly as she had written him. A young Robert Duvall also appears for a brief, fleeting moment, but makes a big impression in his small amount of screen time. Though he’s the subject of the film’s main conflict, Tom Robinson only appears for the long, iconic courtroom sequence. However, Brock Peters is fantastic in the role nonetheless. As the antagonist, James Anderson is downright despicable as racist redneck Bob Ewell and made me intensely hate his character right from the get-go. Mary Badham and Phillip Alford also deliver two of the best child performances ever as our main protagonists.
What should really be admired about this film (and the novel does it too) is that it tackles very mature subject matter and concepts through a coming-of-age story. Scout and Jem add an innocence that kicks off the film and puts things into an unexpected perspective. The film is full of genuine heartbreaking moments as they discover racism, poverty, and hatred in their small community. There’s a sense of innocence being lost, but important lessons being learned and good morals developing over the course of various plot points. In one scene, Atticus addresses the fact that there are a lot of ugly things in the world and he won’t be able to shield his children from them. This comes through in the film not giving into tempting clichés and opting for harsh realism instead. There were multiple points in this film where I was tearing up and was on the verge of crying.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD hit me right in my emotional soft spots and part of the reason the film works so well is because it feels honest. There’s not a single frame, line of dialogue, performance or detail that feels clichéd or disingenuous. I found myself at a loss for words when “The End” popped up in the closing shot, because I was choking back tears. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a heartbreaking film, but it’s an equally beautiful and rewarding experience. The story is about prejudice and racism, but also about preserving the goodness of humanity and doing what’s right in the face of adversity. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD encapsulates what it means to be a decent human being and shines as a timeless masterpiece.