by Brandie Ashe
I’ll start by admitting some pretty heavy bias went into my selection of the top film on my ballot for this countdown. I was born and raised in Alabama, where two texts tend to reign supreme over all others: the Bible, and To Kill a Mockingbird, written by native daughter Nelle Harper Lee and published in 1960. You may think I’m exaggerating, but Mockingbird was on a number of reading lists that were assigned or suggested in school over the years, from middle school onward through college. I have devoured the novel dozens of times, and I continue to watch the 1962 film version year after year (three viewings so far in 2015 alone, thank you very much) just for the sheer pleasure of reliving young Jean Louise “Scout” Finch’s story over and over again.
And it is Scout’s story, regardless of our tendency to focus the lion’s share of our attention on her father, Atticus Finch, played so memorably by Gregory Peck in the cinematic adaptation. It is through her eyes that we see the story unfold, and it is her young, touchingly innocent, yet ultimately wise perception of things that colors our own perception of the characters and the events that occur in the story.
It’s a perspective that is particularly appealing for young readers, who can put themselves in Scout’s shoes—perhaps especially for those of us from Alabama (really, the South in general), for whom these characters and this setting are so very recognizable. For even though I was raised in the suburbs of Birmingham (about as far from Maycomb—or its real-life counterpart, Monroeville—as you can get), I know the rural parts of my home state well, and over the years have met many people who could easily stand in for the characters in the story (some of whom are members of my own extended family, in fact, but I’ll refrain from direct comparisons).
So, yes, I admit some bias in my selection. But I don’t think it’s too far off the mark to label To Kill a Mockingbird one of the best movies ever produced about childhood. Brought to life by a brilliant cast, led by Peck (in what many, myself included, consider the performance of his career) and young Mary Badham as Scout, Mockingbird speaks to all the complexities of that too-short period in our lives: the wonder of discovery, the mystery of the unknown, and that too-familiar death of innocence and the dawning of knowledge about the greater world around us which sparks adulthood.
Mockingbird is presented to us as a memory, as an adult Jean Louise looks back on her childhood in the “tired old town” of Maycomb. As the film opens, it is 1932, and like most of the country, Alabama is in the midst of the Great Depression. Six-year-old Scout and her ten-year-old brother, Jem (Phillip Alford), live with their father, Atticus, a stalwart and respected lawyer, and are cared for by a housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). An agile tomboy more at home playing in the dirt than wearing a school-mandated dress, Scout is the very definition of a precocious child, forever asking questions, many of which we suspect she already knows the answers to.
That almost preternatural wisdom is shared by Jem, and is for the most part encouraged by their father, who raises them alone in the wake of their mother’s death four years prior. The kids have something of an odd relationship with their father, one that cannot be attributed to the simple lack of a maternal figure (one could argue that the kids do, in fact, have a mother figure in the form of the ever-caring Cal); they refer to Atticus predominantly by his first name, and openly voice their disapproval when he disappoints them (as when he declines playing football for the Methodists, much to Jem’s chagrin). But the bond between father and children is nonetheless a strong and loving one, highlighted by Atticus’ sometimes blunt forthrightness. When Scout asks her father if they are poor, he does not sugarcoat the family’s situation, responding almost nonchalantly, “We are indeed.” That insistence on candor, however, does not prevent Atticus from trying to protect his children from the nastier aspects of life, particularly the details of his latest case, as he sets out to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who stands accused of raping a white woman. Still, Atticus knows that he cannot shield them for long, as the children, like all of us, will soon be forced to face some difficult truths. “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son,” he tells Jem at one point. “I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible.”
Atticus is sometimes lionized in popular culture as a paragon of moral virtue (something that became crystal-clear in the wake of this past summer’s release of Lee’s controversial Mockingbird sequel, Go Set a Watchman, as readers reacted with dismay at the book’s portrayal of an older, more openly bigoted Atticus). But he is undoubtedly human, capable of mistakes like any of us. Atticus Finch is, quite simply, a man who tries to follow a personal code of honor and to impart that same sense of morality to his children. Considering that we see the story filtered through the perspective of Atticus’ daughter, however, it’s unsurprising that there is a decided heroic cast to the character, for throughout the course of the film, bit by bit, Jem and Scout see new depths in their father, and their awe and respect for him grow exponentially. This is not to say that Atticus, as portrayed by Peck, is not a heroic character in his own right—far from it—but it is nonetheless important to recognize that everything we see is through the lens of a young girl who idolizes her father above all things, and our tendency to ascribe an almost inhuman sense of righteousness to the character of Atticus feels, at times, like an exercise in wishful exaggeration. He is, not to put too fine a point on it, only human.
Still, it’s easy to see why the children—and why adult Jean Louise, and countless viewers over the decades—worship Atticus’ quiet heroics in the film, for there is much to admire in his personal brand of morality. He is a caring father, and perhaps most importantly, a patient teacher. Paramount among the lessons that Atticus attempts to teach his children—particularly the headstrong Scout—is the value of diplomacy. He persistently attempts to quell Scout’s blunt nature, and her tendency to speak whatever is on her mind (whether through words or with her fists). When Scout angers their crusty neighbor, Mrs. Dubose, Atticus knowingly flatters the old woman until she gets flustered and forgets her rage, leading Jem to remark (accurately), “He gets her interested in something nice, so she forgets to be mean.” When Scout bemoans her new schoolteacher, Atticus, in a beloved quote that particularly resonates later in the film, urges her to consider the teacher’s perspective: “If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” And in the face of some of the townspeople’s disgust towards him for taking the Robinson case—and taking it seriously—Atticus remains tactful yet firm, refusing to bow down to the level of his critics, even when he is spat upon and called horrific names; he goes to court, does his job to the best of his ability, and accepts bitter defeat with a dignity and grace that teaches his children more than any words of wisdom ever could.
Leading up to the Robinson trial, the early scenes of the film almost seamlessly blend the idyllic with the relative harshness of reality. The kids play with their new friend, Dill (John Megna), running freely around town playing games and getting into mischief, unconcerned with the relative poorness of the town and the struggle of its people. Their biggest concern is their neighbor, Mr. Radley, “the meanest man that ever took a breath of life,” and his mysterious son, Boo (Robert Duvall), who never leaves the creepy house nearby. Their late-night sojourn into the Radleys’ yard, populated by dark shadows and accompanied by the ominous undertones of Elmer Bernstein’s effective score, is a nightmare of childish proportions. But it’s nothing compared to the all-too-real dangers presented by Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the virulent racist who sets his sights on the Finch children in the wake of Tom Robinson’s trial and conviction. Ewell’s attack on the children late in the film is a stark reminder of the perilous nature of the world—a fresh lesson for Jem and Scout, in spite of all they’ve witnessed, and another nail in the coffin of their respective childhoods.
The Robinson trial marks the death of innocence for both the children and the whole of the town around them, heightening tension in Maycomb to alarming levels as the typical order of things begins to break down. Indeed, no one escapes the film unscathed, for even the innocent, damaged Boo Radley is forced out into the light to protect the children he has secretly watched over for so long. But interestingly, it is the children who ultimately serve as a catalyst for shaming the townspeople into regaining some semblance of civility. When a lynch mob shows up at the jail on the eve of Robinson’s trial, it is only through the intervention of the kids that the mob retreats in disgrace, and this only after Scout directly addresses one of them, the father of a school chum: “Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. […] I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?” Perhaps it is asking us to suspend disbelief overmuch, to believe that a group of men who have whipped themselves into a collective fit of murderous rage can be so easily tamed by one child’s innocence and naiveté. But, then, is Scout truly as innocent as she appears here? Already in the film, she’s been coached in lessons of diplomacy by Atticus, and there is a sense that Scout deliberately chooses to speak to a member of the mob—one with whom she shares a personal, if tenuous, connection—and to remind him of his own child, presumably safe at home in bed. She is, after all, her father’s daughter.
Upon his first encounter with the Finch children, Dill proclaims, “I’m little, but I’m old.” It’s a remark that could easily be attributed to Jem and Scout as well, for by the end of the film, both children are significantly and irreversibly wiser than their years. It’s fitting that the film ends in the aftermath of Ewell’s attack, with Scout bidding goodbye to Boo on the Radleys’ front porch as adult Jean Louise reflects upon the passage of time. For this is this event that truly ushers in the premature ending of childhood for both Jem and Scout. The longtime “ghost” that haunted their young years has come into the light at last, only to be revealed as the truest of friends—and though there is a sense of joy in the “discovery” of Boo, that revelation is nonetheless their last illusion of childhood to be swept away. With the resolution of that last great mystery, Jem and Scout know too much to ever be able to successfully return to the innocents they once were.