Fun fact: Mockingbirds do a great Judge Clark Douglas impersonation.
Our reviews of The Gregory Peck Film Collection (published November 24th, 2008), To Kill A Mockingbird: Legacy Series Edition (published October 24th, 2005), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
If you have read the novel, you will relive every treasured moment! If not, a deeply moving experience awaits you!
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."
Facts of the Case
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, The Guns of Navarone) is a well-regarded lawyer who lives in the cozy little town of Maycomb, Alabama. Atticus is hardly a typical attorney, frequently providing services for people who can't afford them and lives much more modestly than many others in his profession. One day, Atticus is called upon to defend a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters, Soylent Green), who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. The evidence clearly suggests that Tom is innocent, but persuading a prejudiced jury of that is another matter entirely.
At the same time, we follow the exploits of Atticus' young children Scout (Mary Badham, Let's Kill Uncle) and Jem (Phillip Alford), who spend a great deal of time attempting to spy on local recluse Arthur "Boo" Radley (Robert Duvall, The Godfather). Eventually, the endlessly curious children happen to catch a glimpse of the trial their father is working on. Over the course of the next few days, Scout and Jem are exposed to some very ugly realities. Slowly but surely, they begin to understand both the horrors of the grown-up world and the fundamental goodness of their father.
Many books, movies and works of art have generated controversy over the years, but few have generated controversy from as many different angles as Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. When the book was published, many saw it as aggressively left-wing propaganda which was attempting to guilt-trip America into accepting the notion of racial equality (actor Jimmy Stewart declined the lead role in the film adaptation because he deemed it "too liberal"). In the present day, many critics have dismissed the book as a quietly offensive racial fantasy, as the story is mostly concerned with praising the virtues of its white protagonist while it marginalizes the black characters. Additionally, the book has been required reading in many high schools over the past few decades, which has led to countless protests from parents who object to the book's use of profanity. Even so, it remains beloved and well-regarded by many, and Robert Mulligan's film adaptation has earned a similar level of respect over the years.
To Kill a Mockingbird might seem timid as a statement on race relations, but that isn't really its central subject. The film tells the story of two children beginning to understand their father. The ugly racial climate of Alabama circa 1930 is primarily used to illustrate the manner in which Atticus stood apart from many others in his world: he was a man of warmth and even-handedness in a place filled with hatred and prejudice. For the most part, the movie is presented from a child's point-of-view, and that's the factor which informs which elements are emphasized. From our modern, grown-up vantage point, the real issue is the prejudice which is crushing the town's African-American citizens. For young Scout, discovering her father is an atypically principled and honorable man is the real revelation.
Yes, the tale is naive in some ways (the precocious manner in which Scout diffuses a raging mob comes to mind) and certainly pulls quite a few punches when it comes to its examination of racism, but it's intended as a gentle memory piece rather than an uncompromising sermon. The book and film were instrumental in helping to sway public opinion during the early 1960s, and both offer a powerful affirmation of even-handed decency. In 1962, the public was not ready for an angry movie about the plight of African-Americans, but it was ready for a tender movie about the nobility of being a white individual who believes that all human beings are created equal. It takes what it takes, and To Kill a Mockingbird is worthy of acknowledgment for being a movie which was willing to at least take a stand of some kind in an era when many films nervously dismissed such subjects entirely. Even so, the film remains instructive in an unintentional way as a portrait of how painfully limited conventional southern "liberalism" really was circa 1932 (and 1962, for that matter).
Beyond the sociopolitical elements (which tend to dominate any conversation about the film), To Kill a Mockingbird excels on almost every other level. The performances of the children are strikingly naturalistic (aforementioned mob scene aside), and the movie captures the unbridled recklessness and curiosity of childhood in a manner so potent that it nearly becomes the film's primary virtue. Nearly, mind you. There's no doubt the movie's greatest asset is Gregory Peck, who inhabits the role of Atticus Finch with effortless authority and grace. It's the role Peck was born to play; a part which takes full advantage of the actor's reserved warmth without ever pushing him too far outside his comfort zone (something so many other movies did in so many ways). Peck's famous courtroom summary is the defining moment of the actor's career; one of those sequences which deservedly makes "greatest movie moments" lists time and time again. Looking back at the film from the 21st century, we want Finch to be angrier and more consistently outraged at the people around him, but Peck makes it clear there's a purpose to Finch's unflappable calm. Such unwavering reserve is the only way to stand a chance of having any effect in a bigoted town like this. He can't afford to give an all-too-eager public a reason to dismiss his arguments. Even when an unjust verdict is handed down, he remains cool and collected, quietly preparing to make an appeal.
Director Robert Mulligan's filmography is one which is likely to inspire a good deal of head-scratching, but his work on To Kill a Mockingbird is never less than graceful and assured. Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography is effective in the way it quietly transforms from gently dreamlike to crisply stark from scene to scene, and his images are supported by an achingly fragile score courtesy of Elmer Bernstein (one of the composer's most touchingly delicate efforts). It's clear the film meant a great deal to everyone involved, as all of the participants offer their A-game to this classy adaptation.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Blu-ray) has been given the royal treatment by the folks at Universal, who are releasing the film as part of their 100th Anniversary Celebration. First, you'll be treated to a gorgeous new 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen transfer which puts all previous home video releases of the film to shame. There's a remarkable level of clarity and depth throughout; it's easy to feel enveloped in the well-realized world Mulligan and co. have created. Blacks are deep, detail is pristine consistently and shading is strong. There are certain occasions where light DNR has been employed, but it's used very judiciously and is well-defended in a featurette included on the disc. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is less astonishing, but only because this is a quiet film which doesn't offer much in terms of striking or immersive audio. It's mostly a simple blend of the dialogue and Bernstein's score, both of which sound clean and clear.
Many of the supplements have been reprised from the previous special edition DVD release, but it's nice to see them again here. You get a low-key but informative commentary from Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan, a feature-length documentary called "Fearful Symmetry" (90 minutes), a 97-minute "Conversation with Gregory Peck" (actually more of a fly-on-the-wall documentary featuring Peck, but tremendously informative and engaging nonetheless), Peck's Academy Award speech (2 minutes), his AFI speech (10 minutes), an excerpt from an Academy tribute to Peck (10 minutes), a reminiscence with Mary Badham called "Scout Remembers" (12 minutes), the aforementioned "100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics" (9 minutes), a U-Control feature which offers additional behind-the-scenes content, a theatrical trailer, and some nice digibook packaging which includes several full-color pages of photos, production info and more. Oh, and we get the now obligatory DVD Copy and a Digital Copy.
To Kill a Mockingbird will remain beloved, debated, and angrily dismissed for many years to come, but it certainly won't be forgotten. This is a significant, lovingly-crafted film which still deserves your time and attention. The Blu-ray release is spectacular.
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