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
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.