The first time I saw To Kill A Mockingbird was at a drive-in theater. I was probably about ten or eleven at the time. Even at a young age I was captivated by this seemingly simple story told through the eyes of children that I could easily relate to. Perhaps also it was the fact that the part of the story that dealt with Boo Radley, held a kind of mystery and an eeriness for me, much in the way a ghost story would. I'm not about to make the pretense that I understood the social significance of To Kill A Mockingbird at the age of ten, or even the greatness of the film. That would come later in life, after having viewed it in one of it's first network television broadcasts.
One of the things that makes To Kill A Mockingbird a truly great film is the love and respect everyone involved in bringing Harper Lee's novel to the screen had for the original source material. It shows up on screen in every single frame. Each performance in this film is beyond reproach. Gregory Peck had many fine performances over his storied career, but none every approached the perfection he brought to his portrayal of Atticus Finch. As Atticus, Peck brings us the depth of understanding as to how his love for Jem and Scout enables him to treat his children with respect and honesty. He never talks down to them, but approaches them on a level in which children of their age can comprehend and learn from his own wisdom. Yet, he is still able to retain the same no nonsense approach as other parents. Atticus is also a man who believes in the integrity of justice, yet recognizes the failings of our justice system. When called upon to do his duty, he does so, despite the hatred and venom brought to bear upon him and his children by the citizens of the town in which he lives.
In casting Jem, Scout and Dill, Producer Alan J. Pakula and Director Robert Mulligan faced a daunting task. So much of the success of To Kill A Mockingbird depended on the pivotal role these characters would play in the film. For Jem he chose Philip Alford, for Scout, Mary Badham, and for Dill, John Megna. Alford and Badham were both southern natives who had never been in films before. Megna was a New York native but was also inexperienced. It is this inexperience and lack of polish that enables all three to shine on the screen. Mulligan began filming by letting them act as if making a film was like recess, allowing them to play on the set, and only moving the camera gradually as they became accustomed to their surroundings. It paid off in every way imaginable. None of the three ever appear as if they are actors acting, and bring a childlike wonder and presence to their roles that I had never seen before, and will unlikely witness again.
Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, also gives a performance which he would never again surpass. You will not find anywhere a more memorable scene in any court room than when he testifies on the witness stand. Because he dared to care about a white girl, he now faces almost certain death if convicted, and perhaps even if not convicted. It is the first time I was able to begin to understand the effects of man's prejudice and hatred of a man simply because of the color of his skin. Just as Jem and Scout came of age, and realized the significance of the injustices of racial hatred, so did I.
Equally significant, is Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell. She makes it easy for many to hate her, but like Atticus, we see in her a person to be more pitied than hated. She is a product of not only the times in which she lives, but even more so of her wretched upbringing. Mayella is what she is, but only because of the deep cutting prejudices of those around her. To Mayella, being caught enticing a black man into your house for relations, is the ultimate crime and the penalty for doing so is unthinkable to her.
In his screen debut as Boo Radley, Robert Duvall also brings to life the mysterious neighbor that once frightened Jem, Dill, and Scout so much. Though on the screen for a short length of time, without uttering a word, Duvall shows us a man tortured by years of cruelty, mistreatment, and the gossip and whispers of neighbors. He is a man who wants only to live in his own way, yet the bond that links him to Jem and Scout is significant. They are the childhood he had never really known. Just as Tom Robinson, he has never brought harm to anyone, yet suffers significantly just for the right to be able to exist.
The care with which To Kill A Mockingbird was brought to the screen can also be seen in the Art Direction by Henry Bumstead and Set Decoration by Oliver Emert. They indeed bring to life what a small Southern Town would have been like in the early thirties. Cinematographer Russel Harlan's black and white photography brings it all vividly to the screen, especially in the way he captures the foreboding of the Radley house, the moments when Bob Ewell approaches Jem when he is left in a car alone, and even more noteworthy near the end of the film when Jem and Scout are walking home from a school play. Elmer Bernstein's score is never boisterous, but yet is as important to setting the mood of many of the scenes played out before us.
There have been many eloquent words written in many of the comments on this board about To Kill A Mockingbird. Many of the words are far better than those that I have written. Then again, maybe a few simple paragraphs cannot truly describe the significant achievement in film making that To Kill A Mockingbird is. It will be forever remembered, long after you and I have departed from this world. It is at this point that I usually grade a film. I will skip that here, simply because there is no grade that I can give that could possibly do justice for To Kill A Mockingbird.