Some years I run a film appreciation club at my school. The first year I tried something like that, I was a new teacher and wanted to give my students something to do during downtime while they waited for graduation and asked the commandant for permission to do so for three days. The idea went bust because no one showed up to see any of the classic films I was offering, but the commandant’s question when I asked him if he had any objection to my running some classic films was, “Like To Kill a Mockingbird?”
So, in my mind, this is the film many people jump to when they think of classic American cinema.
To Kill a Mockingbird came in 1962, two years after Harper Lee’s debut novel made her (almost) a literary one-hit wonder. More on that below. Lee used the work to discuss her own childhood growing up in semi-rural Alabama during the Great Depression. The exact year is never mentioned, but Lee does stop to have one of her protagonist Scout’s teachers decry Nazism for its treatment of the Jews before it turns around and have Scout reveal the teacher’s hypocrisy when it came to African Americans. Scout’s a fine enough protagonist. One of the beauties of both the book and the film is showing Scout’s rather naive innocence gradually disappear as she learns how the world really works. The film version’s opening credits play over a child, presumably Scout, drawing with crayons, showing close-ups of her hands as she hums along, various childhood nick-knacks and treasures all around her as she works. Scout’s life passes slowly over the course of the story, with very little change on the surface even if she is a much wiser young woman by the time the closing credits run.
As such, we see Scout and her older brother Jem doing childish things. They befriend a visiting boy named Dill that Lee modeled after her own friend Truman Capote (and that kid sure comes across as a small Capote in his mannerisms), they play games with what they have on hand, and they speculate on the mysterious Boo Radley, a man shut up in the next house over for reasons that neighborhood rumor, shared by kids and adults, suggests he’s some sort of homicidal maniac who nearly stabbed his father to death with a pair of scissors. The father is still visible in town, a man Jem refers to as the meanest man in town, but on the subject of Boo Radley, the children are both unquenchably curious and utterly terrified of the man. He’s never out, and there are a few peripheral contacts with the man, more obvious in Lee’s novel than the film, but until the end, he’s a mystery that the children speculate more about than anything else, such that the real Boo, played by Robert Duvall in his film debut, is a figure both familiar and reassuring. He’s not an enemy or a maniac. He’s frightened of the outside world, someone with few friends of his own, and while he may not be harmless, he certainly is innocent.
But even though To Kill a Mockingbird is Scout’s story, she isn’t the star of the show. No, anyone who knows anything about this story, book or film, knows it’s really the story of her father, Atticus Finch.
This was both Gregory Peck’s best role and as near as I can make out his favorite. Upon his death, the eulogy was delivered by co-star Brock Peters, the man who played Tom Robinson. He stayed close with Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout who addressed Peck as “Atticus” long after the film was finished. He even had a friendship with the reclusive Harper Lee as far as I know. I read the book first which described Atticus as an older man (granted, it was his daughter making the comparison and he could have just been older compared to other fathers in town), and though I didn’t picture Peck as Atticus for that first read, subsequent ones make it impossible to hear or see anyone else. As far as anyone needs to know, Gregory Peck was Atticus Finch.
And what a performance! Atticus isn’t a showy man. His son, Jem, wishes he was more rough and tumble, or at least someone who would let Jem have a gun like other boys his age, but Atticus is a man who detests violence. It’s not even that he’s bad at it. His children are shocked to learn during a mad dog incident that Atticus is the best shot in the county. Atticus is a quiet, soft-spoken man most of the time, someone who sees the best in everybody. He believes most people, deep down, are not bad people. Sure, he acknowledges, moreso in the book than the film, that racism exists all over aside from a handful of people like himself, sort of love interest Miss Maudie from across the street, and Sheriff Tate, but he also believes he can get through to people and make them see that it doesn’t have to be that way. He sets a good example by being a moral man without being a preachy one. As he puts it, it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because all they do is make beautiful music.
There’s a part of me, though, that wonders what someone like James Baldwin made of Atticus Finch. Baldwin’s writing often spoke out against liberal white Hollywood stories that showed mutual forgiveness from both sides was the key to overcoming race relations. That happened in films like The Defiant Ones. Baldwin’s point was that African Americans aren’t the ones who need to tell liberal whites they were “OK” because, well, it’s still a problem. As it is, there’s no sense that Atticus needs or wants the forgiveness of the African American community. He treats all people the same anyway. The most developed black character in the film is still Tom Robinson, maybe the Finch family cook Calpurnia. Robinson is there to look as innocent as humanely possible to show just how wrong the society is to condemn him. As for Calpurnia, she seems to have a good deal of power to correct the Finch children at home when they do wrong, but she’s still just a cook. It’s hard to say, and I suppose I could go look up and see if Baldwin ever addressed this particular story, but I know I probably won’t.
In fact, it’s his way of seeing the potential good in everyone that becomes Atticus’ greatest weakness. He’s unable to get Tom Robinson acquitted at trial, though in the novel at least he considers it a small victory that the guilty verdict wasn’t instantaneous, and he feels better about an appeal. Instead, Robinson is gunned down by the guards during an off-screen attempted jail break. As such, when times passes and the enraged white trash Bob Ewell, the man who brought the bogus charges against Tom Robinson in the first place, attacks Atticus two children and would have done them real harm if not for the intervention of Boo Radley, Atticus is unexpectedly blindsided. Atticus never suspected there was that much hate in any man as to attack Jem and Scout. His general sense of decency also won’t allow him to assume Radley was guilty of the death of Ewell during the struggle. Fortunately, Sheriff Tate has no interest in charging Radley either and is more than willing to say Ewell accidentally killed himself. After all, if the silent figure sitting next to Scout on the Finch front porch isn’t a harmless mockingbird in human form, who could be?
The AFI actually lists Atticus Finch at the top of its 100 Greatest Heroes and Villains list. The first time I saw that, I thought it might be fun to imagine each hero going against the corresponding villain, which would match Atticus against Hannibal Lecter. There’s some more fun to be had with such a game, even if some of them are surprisingly on the nose (Lassie vs Cruella De Vil or Han Solo vs. the creature from Alien), others are just weird (Spartacus vs the Terminator and Robin Hood vs. the shark from Jaws comes to mind there). But ultimately, I think the inclusion says something about Atticus Finch. He’s someone many people would want as their own father, a man who solves problems with his general decency and acceptance of others. He inspired who knows how many lawyers to go into the profession, and he showed what a good man can do in a courtroom and not on the battlefield, even though he ultimately lost the case in court. It’s why there was such an outcry against the suspiciously published Go Set a Watchman, Lee’s “second” novel that showed Atticus as more racist in his old age. The best defense I’ve ever seen of that portrayal in a book I have admittedly not read is that it shows how even someone like Atticus Finch can be more complex than we might have wanted. But really, we don’t want that Atticus. The Atticus that stood up for what was right and acted as a pure moral force may not be the most realistic character ever committed to page or screen, but he was what many people needed him to be.
NEXT UP: We seem to be sticking to a minor theme of upright moral men acting alone. Next up is the 1952 Western High Noon.