To Kill a Mockingbird

Year: 1962
Studio: Universal
Director: Robert Mulligan
Writer: Horton Foote/Harper Lee
Cast: Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Mary Badham, Philip Alford

I watched To Kill a Mockingbird at school, so I was neither interested nor bothered to get the point. So when it occurred to me (about a quarter century later) to give it another go I got a pleasant surprise. This time, I think I got it.

Movies have always been about the hero who can accomplish feats of courage and strength we'd all like to be able to do – that's never changed. But in 1962 it was especially true and the reason the biggest hero was John Wayne was because cinemagoers loved the rugged outdoorsman, the stoic, silent, slitted-eyed who knew right from wrong and who wouldn't be crossed. A man's man who knew how to get something and went out and got it, who dispensed justice from the barrel of his fists or six guns. There's been few stronger archetypes than the Marlboro Man.

The reason Atticus Finch was such an unfamiliar figure wasn't because he defended blacks (a radical enough idea in the early 60s) or because he did the right thing, it was an almost Christ-like dedication to nonviolence. When Mayella Ewell's father, who claimed to have burst in on Robinson raping his daughter, spits in Atticus' face, he simply wipes it off his glasses and turns the other cheek. Ethan Edwards or The Man With No Name would have had a slow drag of a cheroot and calmly blown the varmint away.

The marketing image that was so iconic – of Gregory Peck with his glasses on his forehead and rifle in hand – traded on the Wayne-like heroic motif but we never actually see Atticus holding a gun in readiness for use. That's what I think was so revolutionary about the story.

Telling the story from Scout and Jem's point of view was a brilliant device on the part of author Harper Lee – it gives them (and us) the opportunity to see the world of Atticus, Robinson and the penal system of the day through a child's eyes, with none of the political posturing or bigotry that bastardises it.

The power of a child's outlook is given a literal plot device in the story, when it's Jem and Scout running to Atticus' side to face the lynch mob that saves him from what was probably a bad beating, and likewise Tom Robinson from murder.

As Atticus works on the case Scout, Jem and the their tiny friend from next door entertain themselves with ghost stories about crazy Boo Radley down the street, but Boo will form part of their education about the world – that stories sometimes take on bigger proportions than the truth deserves and that help can come from the unlikeliest source.

Most pleasantly of all, it's all done without showy Hollywood theatrics. None of the kids are Oscar material but they're as natural as you could expect from 10 year olds. Peck is quiet, patient and understated, which was a change for him too because he normally occupied the iron-jawed, camera-loving staginess of the Charlton Heston school.

It's partly a coming of age tale and partly the rise of a new kind of hero in American culture.

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