Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #53
Director: Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck and Mary Badham
To Kill a Mockingbird. The name alone conjures up vivid memories for everyone who ever took a high school English class from the 1970s onward. It is perhaps the most ubiquitous novel of the 20th century, and the 1962 film version isn't far behind. It is an undisputed classic of the first order, and it solidified the greatness of Gregory Peck while introducing a young new actor in Robert DuVall. It was, at its time, the best adaptation of a novel ever committed to film. It confronted racism in America at a time when it badly needed confronted. It held a mirror to America, especially the South, and made the hero not some Western sheriff or war admiral, but a simple lawyer dedicated to fairness and truth who wanted to keep a wrongly accused black man from going to jail for a crime he didn't commit. This was a bold step in 1962. Not everyone read novels, but most people went to the movies. Going to the movies is the most passive pastime of all, and especially when films were cheaper to get into, most Americans were constantly up to date on what was in theaters. To Kill a Mockingbird communicated an important but somewhat uncomfortable message to more people than any piece of art in any other medium before.
A few years back, the American Film Institute released its list of the fifty greatest movie heroes of all time. Rather than Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or James Bond topping the list, all much "cooler" characters than Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck's role in To Kill a Mockingbird came in at #1. Typically I hate citing something the AFI did to show that it's great or relevant, but here I think it's fair. Even in the category of "hero," one which is dominated by people who can do physically astounding feats and who use weapons to achieve the noble ends that they seek, Atticus Finch stands head and shoulders above the rest. He uses reason, words, and an impeccable basso Southern drawl to do what must be done. With some well-delivered monologues, it feels as though he has the power to stop racism dead in its tracks.
Thus far it sounds as though I'm calling this movie preachy. I'd like to point out that I don't mean to. In fact, it's far from it. While the racial implications of Tom Robinson's trial can be read into quite deeply, the film at face value doesn't go that far. It's narrated by Scout Finch, a young girl who has much more pressing problems than race relations in America – namely, learning her lines for a school play in which she was cast as a ham, and running scared from the enigmatic Boo Radley. Through her innocent eyes the trial is cast, and to take anything valuable from the film we have to look farther than she can. The film – and, indeed, the book – works on two levels with the added dimension of the protagonist who isn't quite cognizant of everything that's going on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare convergence of a great author penning a great book, a great screenwriter effectively capturing it, and a great cast and director bringing it to life. There's hardly been a more perfect storm in Hollywood history.
The Good: Gregory Peck's career-best performance as Atticus Finch.
The Bad: It's not a movie that nears my personal favorites just for taste reasons, but it's also not one that I can find any flaws with.
The Skinny: I'm fine with it at #53.