To Kill Still KillsTHOMAS HIBBS
Based on Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, with an impeccable script from Horton Foote, a mesmerizing musical score, and many fine performances, To Kill a Mockingbird is a great American film, one that never fails to move and uplift even after many viewings. A new DVD version of the film makes it all the more attractive.
In one of the bonus tracks, "A Conversation with Gregory Peck," Peck, who won an Oscar for his performance as Atticus Finch, enthusiastically embraces Mockingbird as his favorite among all his films. Also nominated that year was Mary Badham, who played Scout, Atticus's six-year-old daughter, in whose retrospective voice the story, set in the depression-era South, is told. Atticus, a local lawyer whose wife has died, leaving him to rear Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), decides to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of assaulting a white girl. The drama here is not a whodunit we know fairly early on that Robinson is innocent and that the girl's father Robert E. Lee "Bob" Ewell (James Anderson) is the guilty party. Nor is it really about the outcome of the trial; given the blinding prejudice of the majority of whites in the town, Robinson's conviction is inevitable. Instead, the drama is all about character, about noble action in the face of inexorable defeat. Even more, the drama is about childhood and growing up, about the complex ways in which children come to understand and interpret the wider world.
Of course, the world here is not all that wide;
the children inhabit a small, insular, economically strapped town. But that provides
them (and the film) with a deeply resonant sense of place, and as with all great
art, by attending to the particularities in the right way, we can grasp the universal.
In this story, the neighborhood contains an entire universe of significance and
material for the education of children and adults alike. As Atticus explains to
Scout at one point, when discussing a classmate she's having trouble with, you
have to crawl around in someone else's skin and see the world from his vantage
point. This is precisely the sort of education of the moral imagination that good
books and good films provide.
The musical theme captures the feel, not so much of childhood as lived, but of childhood recollected: sad, wistful, elegiac, and full of wonder and mystery. Complemented nicely by the score, Scout's vantage point provides the audience with just the right balance between distance, the sense of being transported to a world we no longer inhabit, and connection, since this is a version of a world we all once inhabited and can once again, at least in imagined recollection.
Scout is a wonderful and memorable character:
her tomboyish competitive spirit with her brother and Dill, the boy who comes
to visit each summer; her awkwardness and irritation on the first day of school
at having to wear a "darn old dress"; her forthrightness in asking questions followed
by her perplexity at having said the wrong thing; and her facial expressions,
especially her manner of squinting ever so slightly as she tries to see everything
more clearly. Her ultimate meeting with Arthur "Boo" Radley, the mythical neighborhood
monster turned gentle defender of the innocent, is memorable not just for Robert
Duvall's remarkable presence in a non-speaking role, in which he manages to exceed
the expectations that have been built up about his mysterious character over an
entire film, but also for the way Scout so quickly recognizes his goodness.
The film's central lesson, to which the title points, concerns a bedrock principle of natural and human law: the defense of the innocent. When Jem takes an interest in guns, Atticus gives Jem the advice his father gave him. He can shoot inanimate objects but, if he must shoot birds, he must remember that it is a sin to shoot a mockingbird, which causes no harm and only provides pleasure by its singing. That law should be about the protection of the innocent is obvious. Yet in application even a principle as fundamental as this can be, as Aquinas puts it, eroded from the human heart, because of “depraved customs and corrupt habits,” in this case by blinding prejudice.
The makers of Mockingbird achieved remarkable success with their fundamental task: showing children awaken to the complexity of adult virtue and vice. If the film is itself suffused with wistful nostalgia for childhood, then the extras, which constitute a sort of extended testimony to Gregory Peck's career and character, are likely to induce nostalgia of a different sort, for the passing of old Hollywood, which for all its corruption was also a world that welcomed and at its best fostered the grace, charm, and wit of actors like Gregory Peck.
Thomas Hibbs. "To Kill Still Kills." National Review (October 19, 2005).
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