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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #180: To Kill a Mockingbird

Courtroom dramas make for great movies, and even though the trial does not occupy the majority of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) it is one of the best trials in cinema. Especially significant is its landmark racial element. By having one of the greatest actors of all time, Gregory Peck, play a white lawyer in 1930s Alabama defending a black man accused of rapping a white teenage girl, it daringly indicated that things were changing in America.

Before the classic movie there was of course the classic book by Harper Lee, which is one of the books all students must read in English class. I certainly had to read it when I was at an American high school while living in Chile, and I liked it a lot better than Catcher in the Rye. To anyone who disagrees with that I have only one question: where is the movie adaptation of Catcher in the Rye? Lord of the Flies has children going feral and fighting one another, but that story has been adapted twice.

Although I read the book and watched the movie back in high school, the original movie poster for To Kill a Mockingbird says it is not suitable for young children. Understandable given the racial content, but also slightly ironic given its protagonists are two children discovering the world around them. Tomboyish Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham, in her most memorable role) and her brother Jem (Philip Alford) get a lot of lessons in good and evil throughout the story as they grow up in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. However like all children in small towns, no matter the geography or era, they still enjoy childhood activities such as playing outside and making up stories about the neighbourhood recluse, the aptly named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first role).

Of the two siblings Scout is definitely the most interesting. Sporting short cropped-hair and with a preference for pants rather than dresses, she is not afraid of taking on any activity the boys do, even if that means getting in a tire and being rolled down the street. When a boy at school insults her father she doesn’t break down and cry, but rather throws the first punch. It would have been interesting to catch up with this character as an adult to see how she turned out.

The reason why the boy insults Scout’s father, kind and moral lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck, who it was said was actually playing himself), is because he has agreed to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) a black man accused of rape. That a black man accused of this crime in 1930s Alabama would be found guilty is of course obvious, and Atticus of course knows this when he accepts the case. So why take it, Scout obviously wonders? The obvious answer: it’s the right thing to do.

It also greatly helps that during the trial Atticus manages to, if not prove Tom’s innocence, at least easily instil reasonable doubt. From the courtroom’s upper level with the members of the black community Scout watches her father prove that a left-handed person assaulted the girl (Collin Wilcox), but Tom’s left hand is crippled. On the other hand the girl’s father, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), is left-handed and too stupid to hide that fact in court.

Peck dominates those courtroom scenes, easily earning his Academy Award. Outside the courtroom it is Badham who holds the screen despite her young age, whether by making audiences laugh when wearing a giant ham costume, or making them sympathize with her as Scout tries to understand her father’s decisions and the immoral actions of the many citizens in her town. 

Thankfully the world has changed a lot since the story’s setting in the 1930s and the film’s release in the 1960s, but the for years to come this will remain a movie that should be shown in many English classes, for both its themes and great performances.


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