Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s: To Kill a Mockingbird

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley and Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, and Mary Badham as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962

From the brilliant opening credits, designed by Stephen Frankfurt, accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s heartfelt score, this lovely film evokes the innocence and terrors of childhood.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.

Based on the best-selling book by Harper Lee — the only book she ever wrote — To Kill a Mockingbird is a southern gothic fantasy.Taking place over a long hot summer in Maycomb, Alabama in 1932, the story traces the coming of age of three children, Scout (Mary Badham), her 10-year-old brother Jem (Philip Alford), and “Dill” Harris (John Megna), who wears geeky glasses and uses big words, a character inspired by Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote.

The children play through lazy summer days in which nothing much seems to happen. And then, suddenly, the real world intrudes with the arrest of a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a poor white girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox). Appointed to defend Tom Robinson is Atticus Finch, the widower father of tomboy Scout.

The film works best when the children carry the burden of the narrative. Especially strong is their fixation on the Radley home down the street, which is in disrepair and feels like a haunted house. Jem tells Dill that Mr. Radley keeps his son Boo chained to a bed in the house, and says of Boo: “Judging from his tracks, he’s about six and a half feet tall. He eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch. There’s a long, jagged scar that runs all the way across his face. His teeth are yellow and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time.”

Of course, neither Jem nor any of the other children has never seen Boo. Perhaps, we think, Boo is a figment of their hyperactive imaginations.

Atticus Finch, played to a self-righteous hilt by Gregory Peck, is the most celebrated character in the movie. His courtroom scenes are powerful. But in truth, Atticus is to good to be believed. He is a perfect liberal. He is revealed as the best shot in Maycomb when he takes down a rabid dog. And yet he is a pacifist, casually sitting and reading a book front of the Maycomb jail without a gun to ward off a lynch mob.

(WARNING: Never use that dopey tactic when confronting a lynch mob. You will be murdered.)

Atticus lectures his children to say “negro” instead of “nigger.” In fact, Peck looks like an angel in his crisp white linen suit and Panama hat. At the same time, the black characters in the film are viewed with zero depth. They are just props for suffering nobility.

One of the first rules of screenwriting is to define a character by his faults. Atticus has no faults — which makes him not only unbelievable, but tediously wise as well.

But the film works anyway because Scout’s point of view prevails. We see her terror when Mayella’s drunken father threatens the Finch family. And we experience her wonderment as the mystery of Boo Radley is gradually peeled away.

The great Robert Duvall makes his first screen appearance as the damaged Boo Radley.  While Atticus eschews violence and trusts the law — which betrays him at every turn — Boo defends Scout when the only law is the law of the jungle.

In an odd way, To Kill a Mockingbird inverts the very piety it worships. Atticus Finch fails Tom Robinson. He even fails his own children when their lives are threatened. The story unwittingly advocates for the mysterious, simple-minded Boo Radley as the true hero of the story. Which is why To Kill a Mockingbird, though flawed, is a great film.

to kill poster

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27 Comments

  1. Barry
    Posted March 26, 2015 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    Whoever who clicked a ‘dislike’ to my comment that I happen to know Harper Lee had written another novel — owes a loud and clear apology. To me and everyone on this board.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  2. TheNonna
    Posted March 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I have to agree with kgbudge…Harper Lee stated repeatedly that Atticus was based on her own father. So, it would only be natural for him to be the man she saw in her own little girl eyes/mind. I remember that as a child I always wanted Atticus as my dad. (Of course, I’m a wee southern girl in my mind still.) I’m not really sure what a southern liberal is. I do know what a southern man is – grew up with quite a few around the house. I also know that most southern men are pretty fair with a rifle, but that many don’t use a gun unless they need to. I always have to give Atticus the benefit of the doubt and say that there was a reason he stopped using a gun, maybe a war issue considering the timeframe of the book/movie. I am sure that the reason he didn’t take a gun to the lynching is that often an unarmed man (especially in a small town where everyone knows everyone else very personally) is a difficult man to attack; and, as I said, there were personal relationships between the lynchers and Atticus. Also, it seems that Atticus did want to go after Cunningham after he attacked Boo but then the sheriff told him he was already dead. I have 3 copies of the movie in my library (yes, I rate it highly and most people know it) so I plan to watch it again this week with fresh eyes – not just the eyes of the small southern girl that first saw it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Michael Kennedy
    Posted February 7, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Peck also played the perfect liberal in The Big Country, refusing to fight until the last minute. He is above all that nasty violence until Jean Simmons (A treasure) gets his goat with Chuck Conners. The movie is great but Peck is far too stiff. The other characters make it work, especially Burl Ives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Posted February 7, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Hmm. I’ll have to watch that again. It’s been a while, but I don’t remember him playing “the perfect liberal,” although Peck certainly was leftist. I recall the knock-down-drag-out with Heston was awesome.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

      • M.R. Smith
        Posted February 9, 2014 at 1:45 am | Permalink

        Peck was also something of an infallible plaster saint in CAPTAIN NEWMAN, MD, but the scenes where he tries to help the patients in the veteran’s hopital dig out the memories that are driving them mad are still gut wrenching, particularly the scenes with Eddie Albert, who he couldn’t save. Tony Curtis, as the cocky orderly, saves that picture from becoming too preachy.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Posted February 10, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      “Peck also played the perfect liberal in The Big Country, refusing to fight until the last minute. He is above all that nasty violence….”
       
      I viewed the film again, because I hadn’t seen it for a year or so. I have the DVD and remembered right. He wasn’t playing “the perfect liberal” — whatever you might mean by that — and he was as pacifist as Sgt York was: a man who lived his principles yet knew when action was right or wrong, knew when action was timely, and knew when action fit with his principles. Some points occurred to me as I watched (spoilers to follow if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled):
       
       

      1. McKay (Peck) gives dueling pistols as a gift. Is that a gift from a pacifist?

      2. McKay doesn’t look for a fight. For instance, in the first confrontation with Buck (Conners), he knows the difference between drunk & dangerous and when one hasn’t yet changed into the other.

      3. Major (Bickford) is a thug & a bully, different from Buck only by having more power to command. Major wants to teach Buck a lesson but lets his thugs run rampant over the ranch & shoots holes in a water tower. On the other hand, the scene in town when they’re going after Buck’s friends makes more sense — seek only the perpetrators, not others who happen to be affiliated but had nothing to do with the perpetration. Buck is a classic bully: rough with the weak and cowardly with the strong.

      4. McKay doesn’t refuse to fight — just doesn’t fight on the other guy’s terms. It’s a smart fighter who always fights on his own terms and doesn’t play the other guy’s game. McKay fights only when he wants and uses private challenges because he’s not trying to prove himself to others. He doesn’t need and doesn’t want an audience.

      5. Major & Leech (Heston) are authoritarians. Even Leech says, “You’d be better off if you’d just do what you’re told.” Isn’t that the Leftist/Communist view?

      6. Buck slaps Julie (Simmons) & McKay hits Buck. Thus McKay started the fight by defending the lady. Is that a pacifist behavior? The fight changes to a duel, but the McKay doesn’t back down. What would a “liberal” who is “above all the nasty violence” do instead?

       
      I did think that the final resolution was the weakest part of the whole movie, boiling down to simple-minded childishness: the old saw about instead of a war the two leaders should duke it out. Nonsense!
       
      The whole vendetta boils down to both sides ignoring the property rights of a third party, creating a situation that was cleared simply by prior agreement of the past & present owners to share the water with the neighbors. Instead, the two sides wanted the proceeds of theft.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted February 11, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        Katheryn Wyler, in an ICONS Radio Interview – made a couple of good points about TBC. One, it was ahead of its time dealing with water rights. 2. While I think the score by Jerome Moross was beautiful (the main theme is still being played 56 years later), it was a bit overpowering in certain scenes  – like the ride into Blanco Canyon.
         
        Then  at least to me it was pretty clear that the Peck character was anything but a pacifist – talking about his life as a sea captain to Jean Simmon’s character, offering the dueling pistols as a gift (as Larry mentioned).
         
        He showed a strength of character stronger than Heston’s character – proved that he wasn’t “afraid” of fighting or other acts but didn’t need the adulation or approval of others. He fought when it was necessary.
         
        The dueling scene towards the end showed this very well.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  4. kishke
    Posted February 7, 2014 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    And yet he is a pacifist, casually sitting and reading a book front of the Maycomb jail without a gun to ward off a lynch mob. Warning: Do Not Attempt This Dopey Tactic When Confronting a Lynch Mob — You Will Be Murdered.
    As I recall from the book, these were people he knew and had helped. His idea was to shame them into doing the right thing. Which is actually what happened, except it took Scout’s intervention. They were reminded of who they were.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. M.R. Smith
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Warning: Do Not Attempt This Dopey Tactic When Confronting a Lynch Mob — You Will Be Murdered.
    In the book, the editor of the Maycomb Tribune is also watching for a lynch mob. He’s across the street, in his darkened newspaper office, with a shot gun.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie – I will have to view it again through new eyes.  Amazon, here I come.
    As an aside, having my diploma from cinema 101 I am amazed at the character roles Paul Fix has been in – always just thought of him as the sheriff in The Rifleman.
    He has been around the block.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Posted February 7, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Paul Fix did a lot of great work for a long career. He also wrote, which reminds me of James Gleason in that Gleason did both great character roles and wrote. BTW, we talked the other day about another great character actor, Harry Carey, Paul Fix’s daughter married Harry Carey Jr. Carey Sr got his career off the ground acting in a play he wrote, and wrote more after that.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. Johnny
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Whether Peck portrays AF as perceived by Scout or is how Lee wanted him portrayed doesn’t matter – it’s the biggest problem with the movie. I think Lee knew the white liberals in 1960 (and ever since to this day) saw themselves in Peck’s angelic portrayal. Had he walked on water or raised the dead you probably wouldn’t have found a white liberal that didn’t think it was a realistic scene.
     
    What is it about southern female novelists (Lee and Mitchell) that have 1 great novel in them and never write again?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

    • Barry
      Posted February 6, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

      That is incorrect. Both Mitchell and Lee have written but not for publication.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • Johnny
        Posted February 6, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

        Yes, they wrote magazine articles and novellas. But it would have been as if Shakespeare had written Macbeth and dvd reviews of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Joe Dirt. They may be great reviews of important films from Hollywood’s Golden Era but they wouldn’t be on the level of Lear, Julius Caesar et al.
         
         

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

        • Barry
          Posted February 7, 2014 at 8:12 am | Permalink

          I happen to know that Harper Lee has serious work at some stage of completion but unavailable for whatever personal reasons.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

          • Johnny
            Posted February 7, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

            I do think the rumors that Capote wrote TKAM are totally baseless so obviously she has the talent to write one of the great American novels (ditto for Mitchell). 

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

          • kishke
            Posted February 9, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

            That’s interesting, Barry. How did you come by that knowledge?

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

            • Barry
              Posted February 9, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

              Never met nor spoken with Harper Lee, who is always called Nell by her friends, but during the late sixties in New York  people I worked with at The Softness Group, a public relations/production firm, knew her, and her agents quite well. In fact  one of them, John Orr,   had grown up with her. Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain were always talking about her next publication, which was completed at that time, more than forty years  back. We can only speculate about what happened.  But, if you make a diligent online search, some references to this work, and possibly others will show up. Suppose after her death there will be a flurry of activity.

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

              • kishke
                Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                Interesting. I’d love to read it one day.

                Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

    • Posted February 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      Hmm.
       
      Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
      Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
      Richard Hooker (H Richard Hornberger): M*A*S*H
      Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
      Grace Metalious: Peyton Place
      Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind
      Boris Pasternak: Dr Zhivago
      Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
      Marcel Proust: In Search of Lost Time
      J D Salinger: Catcher in the Rye
      Anna Sewell: Black Beauty
      John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces
      Oscar Wilde: Picture of Dorian Gray
      Kathleen Winsor: Forever Amber

      One great novel each, although some, like Mitchell, tried writing others but didn’t complete, and others, like Metalious & Hornberger, did write others but they weren’t great. All Southern women? Hmm.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  8. Posted February 6, 2014 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    kgbudge is exactly right and beat me to it. Atticus is idealized in the film — and book — as Scout sees him: infinitely masterful, worldly wise, and never wrong. All other male characters pale in comparison, except Boo Radley at the end.
     
    Boo proves honorable and acts when previously Atticus talked. Far from the monster the children imagined, Boo showed himself, overwhelmed by keeping his troubles in but acting honorably, while other males interacting directly with the children except Atticus (Tom Robinson didn’t interact with the children) expressed their troubles and showed little honor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

    • M.R. Smith
      Posted February 9, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      Mr. Cunningham may be a racist who comes to the jail with a mob, to lynch an unjstly accused Black man, and in the end doesn’t. but he’s also a man who pays his debts and refuses to take charity. Sheriff Tate acts, according to his lights, honorably.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • kishke
        Posted February 10, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        Cunningham cannot possibly be a “racist,” because there were no racists then, at least not in the pejorative sense the word has now assumed. In these modern times, this is the worst possible insult. In the times the book portrays, in the place it is set, it is a meaningless term.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

        • M.R. Smith
          Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

          Dear Kishke:
          Good point. “Racist” is fast becoming a meaningless term now, with a professor accused of racism because he expects his Black students to be familiar with the grammar and spelling of the English language.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

          • kishke
            Posted February 10, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

            “Meaningless” it may be, but with the power to destroy lives.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

        • Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:36 am | Permalink

          The inane, all-purpose accusation of today’s use of the “racist” pejorative is certainly overblown from its original use, but its meaning and use goes back to the time of the story, although I don’t remember it being used in the story. http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=racist&allowed_in_frame=0

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. kgbudge
    Posted February 6, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I think part of the reason the film works is that we are seeing Atticus as Scout sees Atticus. His flaws would not be apparent to her.
    I really love this film. It made it hurt that much more when Peck appeared in the slanderous political ad against Bork. I’ve had a hard time forgiving him for that.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

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