In tribute to the screenwriter and playwright Horton Foote, who died yesterday March 4th aged 92, a look at the film for which he received an Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay…
Directed by Robert Mulligan.
Starring Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, Brock Peters.
A young girl growing up in the Depression-era American Deep South encounters intolerance and prejudice when her attorney father defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Part coming-of-age tale, part courtroom drama, To Kill a Mockingbird is widely regarded as one of – if not the – greatest book-to-film adaptations in cinema history. Based on Harper Lee’s classic semi-autobiographical novel, the story is told through the eyes of six-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Badham), a young girl growing up in Maycomb County, Alabama during the early 1930’s. Released during the American Civil Rights Movement, it is a story rich in thematic content and explores notions of equality, compassion and understanding as viewed from the innocent perspective of a child.
Much like the book itself the film’s narrative is split into two distinct parts. The beginning deals with Scout’s life at home along with older brother Jem (Alford) and their middle-aged father Atticus (Peck), a local attorney and well-respected member of the community. Although the relationship between the children and their father is established early, Atticus is a peripheral figure for much of the opening act. Instead the focus is on Scout and Jem who, together with their friend Dill (John Megna), harbour an increasing fascination with the strange and mysterious “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall, in his screen debut), a reclusive neighbour who is shunned by the majority of the townsfolk.
The first act of To Kill a Mockingbird succeeds in drawing the viewer into the children’s world through sublime performances from it’s inexperienced young cast, each projecting an air of realism and believability that is often lacking from other films of the time. However Horton Foote’s screenplay chooses to streamline much of the novel’s first section and from the moment that Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson (Peters) – a black man falsely accused of the rape of a local white woman – the children’s involvement with Boo takes a beat seat to their father’s defiant stance against the deep-rooted prejudice inherent in Maycomb, and it is here where the film genuinely shines.
Gregory Peck suggested the day he was offered the role of Atticus Finch to be the luckiest of his life and with his masterful portrayal of a man determined to fight against injustice he provides one of the true iconic characters of the screen. Named by the American Film Institute as “The Greatest Hero of American Film”, Atticus stands in direct contrast to the bigotry and prejudice rampant in the town. A humble man but one of great pride, integrity, and honesty, Atticus’ qualities are gradually revealed to the children during his impassioned defence of the falsely accused but pre-judged Tom Robinson. Peck – himself a staunch civil rights advocate – clearly connected with the character and his multiple award-winning performance is startling through-out. From touching moments of paternal interaction with Scout and Jem to his rousing closing argument in the Tom Robinson trial, the translation is so perfect that it becomes impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
Although Peck’s Atticus is the highlight of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is by no means all that the film has to offer. The quality of acting from the leads is matched by an accomplished supporting cast who are all thoroughly convincing in bringing Harper Lee’s characters to life. Of course this is also aided by the wonderful set design of 1930’s Maycomb County, Horton Foote’s fine screenplay, impressive black and white photography and lighting, and a captivating musical score from Elmer Bernstein.
Critically acclaimed upon release, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and although it lost out on Best Picture to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it was successful in three categories – Best Art / Set Decoration, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Peck, who also received a Golden Globe for his efforts). At the time of the Civil Rights Movement the film’s strong messages and the inspirational character of Atticus Finch could not have failed to resonate with the audience. Forty-five years later To Kill a Mockingbird is still a remarkable experience that has aged exceptionally well, perhaps due in part to the period setting. However it is impossible to ignore the film’s universal themes, which remain as relevant today as ever. A truly timeless classic that is guaranteed to stay with the viewer long after the film has ended.