To Kill a Mockingbird
(United States, 1962)
I suspect that most readers expected this movie to be somewhere on the list - the only question was which spot it would occupy. Unlike some "important" motion pictures, which fail to impress today's audiences, To Kill a Mockingbird is as potent in the 2000s as it was in the 1960s. My guess is that none of its power will fade in the near future. And, if or when we as a nation achieve the goal of perfect racial harmony, this movie will still be effective as a cautionary tale and a reminder of what was. I first saw To Kill a Mockingbird in a junior high school English class (that would have been in 1980) over a four-day period. Even under such less-than-ideal circumstances (watching a 28" TV with 30 other students in the classroom), the film left an impact. I have since watched it in more favorable conditions, and my respect has grown. And, although I have seen Gregory Peck in dozens of roles, this is the one I always remember him for, even though it's less flamboyant that his work in, say, Cape Fear. If you haven't yet experienced To Kill a Mockingbird, I heartily recommend not only renting the movie, but reading the book.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
As uncertain as the political climate was during the 1960s, it was even more volatile in the 1930s, which is when To Kill a Mockingbird is set. The movie takes place in the small Alabama town of Maycomb over the span of a little more than a year, bounded by two summers. Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is an upright lawyer with unimpeachable ethics. If there were more attorneys like him, the Law could indeed be considered a noble profession. A widower, Atticus has the responsibility of caring for his two children - his 10 year-old son, Jem (Phillip Alford), and his six year-old daughter, Scout (Mary Badham). Jem and Scout are typical children, spending their time going to school and playing outside. And they have a weird fascination with the Radley house down the street, where the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) lives. Boo is the local Bogeyman, a figure who never emerges from his house, but about whom a monstrous legend has developed. As with all such fearful tales, the stories about Boo equally frighten and attract Jem and Scout. When Atticus takes the case of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, some of the townsfolk turn against him, especially Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the racist father of the so-called victim. For Atticus, unlike many of the inhabitants of Maycomb, Tom's situation is about justice, not skin color. But the South is changing slowly, and there are far more men like Ewell, who see black men as frightening figures. Although Atticus presents a strong case that proves Tom's innocence, the charged man is nevertheless found guilty by a jury that is unwilling to take the word of a black man over that of a white one. Justice is not served, and a tragedy results.
An astonishing motion picture by any standards, To Kill a Mockingbird only failed to win a Best Picture Oscar because it was in the running against Lawrence of Arabia. The minimalist might call this a "courtroom drama", but that would be selling the film short in so many areas: scope, tone, and thematic content, to name a few. Yes, To Kill a Mockingbird features a lengthy courtroom sequence, but, while that action may be at the heart of the film's storyline, it is only one of dozens of moments that, taken in concert, make this the film that it is. To Kill a Mockingbird is a faithful adaptation of one of the 20th century's most important American works of literature. It is also a masterpiece in its own right. This is one of those rare productions where everything is in place - a superior script, a perfect cast, and a director who has a clear vision and achieves what he sets out to do. To Kill a Mockingbird is universally recognized as a classic, and the label is well deserved.
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