Judge Bryan Pope enjoys this mockingbird's beautiful music.
Our reviews of The Gregory Peck Film Collection (published November 24th, 2008), To Kill a Mockingbird (Blu-ray) 50th Anniversary Digibook (published January 31st, 2012), and Universal 100th Anniversary Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.
I remember when my daddy gave me that gun. He told me that I should never point it at anything in the house; and that he'd rather I'd shoot at tin cans in the backyard. But he said that sooner or later he supposed the temptation to go after birds would be too much, and that I could shoot all the blue jays I wanted—if I could hit 'em; but to remember it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. Well, I reckon because mockingbirds don't do anything but make music for us to enjoy. They don't eat people's gardens, don't nest in the corncrib, they don't do one thing but just sing their hearts out for us.
Universal has given the red carpet treatment to the critically acclaimed, universally embraced adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about tolerance and compassion.
Facts of the Case
It's Depression-era Alabama, and Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), a widowed father and principled lawyer, is summoned to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man who has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), the daughter of racist Bob Ewell (James Anderson). A man of fierce convictions, Atticus is determined to staunchly defend his client, but his involvement in the trial jeopardizes the safety of his two children, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Jean Louise (Mary Badham), also known as "Scout."
So powerful are To Kill a Mockingbird's themes about prejudice and racial injustice that it's easy to overlook the vivid coming-of-age story hiding deep inside Lee's book. But look closer and Lee's story is not so much about a white woman's alleged rape by a black man than it is about children who are, in a sense, raped of their innocence.
That's not to dismiss the importance of the story's racial overtones, nor Lee's uncanny ability to expose our nation's rotted underbelly in a manner as eloquent as it is angry. Of course her work is a damning indictment of the American mindset. But what gives the story its punch, what makes it rip away our blinders so that we see the ugliness that she sees, is the way Lee imposes the unforgiving realities of Depression-era racism on two idealistic children (three if you include the neighbor boy Dill) and forces them to draw conclusions that could change the courses of their lives. That's a daunting prospect for any child to face, but Lee doesn't flinch for even a moment.
Robert Mulligan's Oscar-winning adaptation of Mockingbird is, as has been acknowledged by audiences and critics for the past 40 years, a beautiful, unforgettable film. Its production values are flawless, of course, but its chief asset is its respect for the source material. Screenwriter and celebrated playwright Horton Foote takes time and tremendous care in establishing Lee's characters, particularly Scout and Jem, and the minutiae of their lives.
At first, the film seems to meander without purpose, dwelling needlessly on the children's fascination with the spooky, elusive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in a brief but quietly powerful debut performance), or on their befriending an impoverished schoolmate, or watching them interact with Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who has become a sort of surrogate mother to the children. For a full hour, we follow the children through lazy summer afternoons of playing hide and seek, rolling each other through town inside tractor tires, and relaxing on the front porch swing while fireflies cut through the night. It isn't until the second hour, when the story shifts its focus to Tom Robinson's trial, that Lee's themes suddenly take shape.
The trial and its aftermath present a drastic change in tone for Lee's story and Mulligan's film. As Tom stands virtually helpless against the venomous lies spouted forth from his white accusers, Scout and Jem discover firsthand what happens when hate and ignorance join forces. Mayella Ewell's illogical, unsubstantiated accusations regarding her rape are supported only by her father, who, the film implies, has his own reasons for directing blame elsewhere. Their story obviously holds no water, but only Atticus and the judge—both prisoners themselves in a culture of hate—are capable of recognizing that fact.
The change in tone is drastic, but also necessary. Here, various storylines converge and Mockingbird reveals itself to be not an author's sentimental recollection of childhood, but a wonder of graceful, purposeful, potent storytelling. Here, we become firsthand witnesses to the destruction of innocence, the death of the mockingbird.
Peck, who won an Oscar for Mockingbird often cited Atticus Finch as his favorite role, and it's not hard to imagine why. With his gentle, generous nature and unwavering integrity, Peck embodied the qualities that made Lee's character such a treasured, enduring creation. Blessed with quiet dignity and extraordinary decency, both were the kind of men every child deserves to have as a father.
So it stands to reason that Finch's relationship with his children, the determined-to-be-a-man Jem and the tomboy Scout, should serve as the emotional core of the story. And it goes without saying that proper casting of Jem and Scout was critical to the film's success. Mulligan draws sensitive, thoughtful performances from Alford and Badham, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Badham, in particular, delivers one of the most appealing performances from a child I have ever seen. Pay attention to her face at any point during the film, and you'll see that she is constantly reacting to the people and action around her. Few moments in film history are more moving than the scene where Atticus, defeated but holding his chin up high, leaves the courtroom after Tom's conviction. From the balcony, we hear the Reverend Sykes instruct Scout to stand up as her father passes.
The greatest achievement of Lee's story-and one that carries over to the film-is how it draws hope from the ashes of hate. Scout's eyes are forced opened during one fateful summer, but what she ultimately sees isn't man's cruelty to man, but the ability of personal integrity—even just a glimmer of it—to bridge the gorge we place between each other. The world desperately needs to be reminded of this, now more than ever.
Universal gives To Kill a Mockingbird a special edition that is truly exquisite. Part of the Universal Legacy Series, this two-disc set features a gorgeous transfer, crisp audio and bountiful extras. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio with an anamorphic transfer, and Russell Harlan's lovely black-and-white cinematography is scrubbed clean and beautifully preserved. The sound is also exceptionally well preserved, providing a solid balance between the dialogue and Elmer Bernstein's appropriately understated score.
The extras, though, are what make this Mockingbird really sing. In addition to the informative but occasionally dry feature-length commentary with director Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, the first disc includes footage of Peck accepting his Oscar and, more interestingly, the 10-minute speech he delivered when he received the AFI Life Achievement Award. As expected, Peck is gracious and eloquent as he recounts the many directors and actors with whom he collaborated over the years. His gift for oration was obviously passed on to his daughter, Cecilia, who shares many personal memories during the eight-minute "Academy Tribute to Gregory Peck." Mary Badham, in a rare public appearance, takes center stage in the 1999 interview "Scout Remembers." Badham, who still faintly resembles the ten-year-old Scout, fondly recalls being cast in Mockingbird and working with Peck. The original theatrical trailer and brief production notes round out disc one.
Disc two features two documentaries, both of which are generous in length and content. "Fearful Symmetry" runs 90 minutes and covers every aspect of the making of To Kill a Mockingbird. Thorough and exceptionally well made, "Symmetry" includes remembrances from Mulligan, Foote, Lee, Peck, Badham and Alford. This is easily one of the best making-of documentaries I've had the pleasure of viewing.
Don't be fooled by the title of the second documentary, "A Conversation with Gregory Peck," as this is much more than a "talking head" feature. Directed by Peck's daughter, Cecilia, "Conversation" does contain excerpts from many of Peck's last public appearances, where adoring fans were invited to ask questions about Peck's life and work. However, the program also follows Peck around his home and on various excursions, including a trip to France, where he recalls how he met his second wife, Veronique Passani. It also includes much home movie footage of young Peck and his family. This is a very personal program, and a fitting tribute to the soul of To Kill a Mockingbird.
To Kill a Mockingbird should be required viewing, and Universal's stunning Legacy Series Edition belongs in every DVD collection.
All charges brought against this classic are hereby dropped.
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Scales of Justice
• Feature commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula
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