Fifty-nine years ago today, the film To Kill a Mockingbird premiered. I have long-professed that the very best first paragraph of a novel is To Kill a Mockingbird. It pulls you in, makes you ask questions, and compels you to read and flip pages as fast as possible. Paper cuts be dammed. Imagine that same feeling with respect to the film version narrated by Kim Stanley. You have to watch this film.
Directed by: Robert Mulligan
Produced by: Alan J. Pakula
Screenplay by: Horton Foote
Based on: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Phillip Alford, John Megna, Ruth White, Paul Fix, Brock Peters, Frank Overton
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cinematography: Russell Harlan, A.S.C.
Edited by: Aaron Stell, A.C.E.
Production companies: Brentwood Productions, Pakula-Mulligan
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Release date: December 25, 1962
Running time: 129 minutes
Budget: $2 million
Box office: $13.1 million
Academy Award for Best Actor — Gregory Peck (The award was presented to Peck by Sophia Loren)
Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay – Horton Foote
Academy Award for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Black-and-White — (Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen, and Oliver Emert)
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama — Gregory Peck
Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score — Motion Picture — Elmer Bernstein
Golden Globe Award for Best Film Promoting International Understanding
The film is narrated by the adult Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Young Scout and her pre-teen older brother Jem live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the early 1930s. Despite the family’s modest means, the children enjoy a happy childhood, cared for by their widowed father, Atticus Finch, and the family’s black housekeeper, Calpurnia. During the summer, Jem, Scout, and their friend Dill play games and often search for Arthur “Boo” Radley, an odd, reclusive neighbor who lives with his brother Nathan. The children have never seen Boo, who rarely leaves the house. On different occasions, Jem has found small objects left inside a tree knothole on the Radley property. These include a broken pocket watch, an old spelling bee medal, a pocket knife, and two carved soap dolls resembling Jem and Scout.
Atticus, a lawyer, strongly believes all people deserve fair treatment, in turning the other cheek, and to defend what you believe. Many of Atticus’ clients are poor farmers who pay for his legal services in trade, often leaving him fresh produce, firewood, and so on. Atticus’ work as a lawyer often exposes Scout and Jem to the town’s racism, aggravated by poverty. As a result, the children mature more quickly.
Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl, Mayella Ewell. Atticus accepts the case, heightening tension in the town and causing Jem and Scout to experience schoolyard taunts. One evening before the trial, as Atticus sits in front of the local jail to safeguard Robinson, a lynch mob arrives. Scout, Jem, and Dill unexpectedly interrupt the confrontation. Scout, unaware of the mob’s purpose, recognizes Mr. Cunningham and asks him to say hello to his son Walter, her classmate. Cunningham becomes embarrassed, and the mob disperses.
At the trial, it is alleged that Tom entered the Ewell’s property at Mayella’s request to chop up a chifforobe and that Mayella showed signs of having been beaten around that time. Among Atticus’ chief defensive arguments is that Tom’s left arm is disabled, yet the supposed rapist would have had to mostly assault Mayella with his left hand before raping her. Atticus points out that Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, is left-handed, implying that he – rather than Tom – beat Mayella because he caught her seducing a young black man (Robinson). Atticus also states that Mayella was never examined by a doctor for evidence of rape after the supposed assault. Taking the stand, Tom denies he attacked Mayella but states that she kissed him against his will. He testifies that he previously had assisted Mayella with various chores at her request because he felt sorry for her. His words incite a swift and negative reaction within the courtroom. Whites are viewed as superior to blacks. In his closing argument, Atticus asks the all-white male jury to cast aside their prejudices and focus on Tom’s obvious innocence. Tom’s sympathy for Mayella doomed his case, and he is found guilty.
As Atticus exits the courtroom, the black spectators in the balcony rise to show their respect and appreciation. When Atticus arrives home, Sheriff Tate informs him that Tom has been killed during his transfer to prison, apparently while attempting to escape. Atticus, accompanied by Jem, goes to the Robinson home to relay news of Tom’s death. Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father, appears and spits in Atticus’ face as Jem sits in the car.
Autumn arrives, and Scout and Jem attend an evening school pageant that Scout is participating in. She is wearing a large hard-shelled ham costume, portraying one of Maycomb county’s farm products. Scout’s dress and shoes are misplaced, forcing her to walk home in the costume. While cutting through the woods, Scout and Jem are attacked by an unidentified man. Scout’s cumbersome costume protects her from the attacker’s knife but restricts her seeing much. Jem is knocked unconscious after a brief but violent struggle. The attacker is suddenly thwarted by another unidentified man. Scout escapes her costume and sees the second man staggering while carrying Jem toward their house. Scout runs into the arms of a frantic Atticus. Doc Reynolds arrives and treats an unconscious Jem’s broken arm.
Scout tells Sheriff Tate and her father what happened, then notices a strange man behind Jem’s bedroom door. Atticus introduces Scout to Arthur Radley, whom she knows as Boo. It was Boo who rescued Jem and Scout, overpowering Bob Ewell and carrying Jem home. The sheriff reports that Ewell, apparently seeking revenge for Atticus humiliating him in court, is dead at the scene of the attack. A knife is in his ribs. Atticus mistakenly assumes Jem killed Ewell in self-defense. Sheriff Tate realizes the truth – Boo killed Ewell defending the children. His official report will state that Ewell died falling on his knife. He refuses to drag the painfully shy, introverted Boo into the spotlight for his heroism, insisting it would be “a sin.” Scout draws a startlingly precocious analogy, likening the unwelcome public attention that would be heaped on Boo to the killing of a mockingbird that does nothing but sing. Scout escorts Boo home, never to see him again.