To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): Praise and Criticism for Robert Mulligan's Most Popular Film
“To begin with, this case should never have come to trial.” Atticus Finch begins his closing statement with these words, and from that point delivers a speech so true, so commanding, so universal, you would have to be a fool not to believe it. It is the single greatest courtroom speech in the history of American movies.
I don’t usually confess things like this, but here it is: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) is the film that launched me into an obsession with classic movies. All of my love for the classic filmmakers of Hollywood begins with Robert Mulligan. I first saw the film at the age of fourteen, in the summer after my departure from middle school. High school was just around the corner. One day, at the Webster Groves library, I found a videotape of To Kill A Mockingbird for rental and took it home. I was familiar with it, mainly, because the AFI had voted Atticus Finch #1 in their list of the Top 50 Heroes in American cinema. Once the movie was over, I was so overjoyed, I was in tears. Then when I entered high school the following autumn, as a freshman, I read Harper Lee’s novel for the first time. Again, nothing but joy. There was absolutely no stopping my seemingly immortal and undying love for this extraordinary story.
But those years are long gone. I’ve seen far too many more movies and far too many superior movies—some of which, for that matter, were directed Robert Mulligan. Don’t get me wrong: I still love To Kill A Mockingbird. Truly, I do. But this is not a perfect film. Far from it. Nor is the original novel a flawless work. In my young teenage years, I regarded both Lee’s novel and Mulligan’s film to be without compare, finding no fault in either of them and often getting in extensive arguments with those who thought otherwise. But after watching the movie again recently, I’ve suddenly realized that for all of its messages about love, tolerance, anti-discrimination and nonviolence, To Kill A Mockingbird is also a story that inadvertently contradicts itself by endorsing hero worship, stereotypical antagonists and, most offensive of all, eye-for-an-eye justice. It is a story that is at once beautiful and hypocritical.
Matt Zoller Seitz, one of my favorite critics, shares my appreciation for To Kill A Mockingbird but is also quick to criticize the film where it is deserved. In a slideshow for Salon, Seitz writes, “My problem is the way this movie (and its source novel) make the heroes so pure, the villains so irredeemably craven and nasty, and the moral lessons so tidy. Atticus Finch is the nicest man who ever lived. Accused rapist Tom Robinson is innocent of all charges, including the implication that a black man could be turned on by the likes of his accuser, the gangly, shrewish, redneck slut Mayella Ewell. Mayella's dad, Bob Ewell--who beat Mayella and concocted the phony rape and battery charges to save face--is a racist pig, a step up from the hillbillies in Deliverance.”
The irony here, as Seitz observes, is that To Kill A Mockingbird reduces its heroes to archetypes and its villains to stereotypes even though it is a story written for the purpose of denouncing all archetypes and stereotypes in general. This is supposed to be a story about people who think the way they do for a reason, good people who sometimes do bad things, and flawed people who don’t know any better than what they have been taught since childhood. In his famous courtroom speech, Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) uses this sensible rhetoric when he speaks before the jury and tries to overcome their racism by dismissing two kinds of stereotypes: the idea that black men can’t be trusted around white women, and the idea that all poor white people are stupid, soulless and hopelessly bigoted.
Well, the movie certainly makes good on deconstructing that first stereotype. But To Kill A Mockingbird fails to make good on its second promise of illuminating on the poor white characters of the story as human beings. The one bigoted white character in all of To Kill A Mockingbird who can absolutely be described as three-dimensional is the farmer Walter Cunningham (Crahan Denton), who brings Atticus bags of hickory nuts every week as payment for legal work Atticus once did for him, but then finds himself morally conflicted when he leads a lynch mob against Atticus at the local jail, and is unsure whether to proceed. Perhaps in some ways a case can be made that the abused, frightened Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) is a three-dimensional character, since she is a victim of incest, is confused by her sexual feelings and, as a consequence, puts another man’s life at stake after she does something that her society considers “unspeakable”. But no such complexities can be applied to her father, Bob Ewell (James Anderson), who as Seitz correctly writes, is never seen as anything more than an evil, racist pig. He has only purpose: to be the guy we’re supposed to hate.
Keep in mind that these problems in the movie’s characterizations are not just the fault of Horton Foote’s Academy Award-winning screenplay. This is exactly how Harper Lee wrote them in her novel. Foote’s job was only to adapt her pages; practically every intellectual concept that is present in Mulligan’s film is one of Lee’s own original concepts. Yet as Seitz explains, it is not only the antiheroes in To Kill A Mockingbird who are sort of drawn up stereotypically. Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), the black man Mayella has accused of rape, is so generous that he’s almost too generous. Even if he didn’t take advantage of Mayella, is it so hard to believe that he might have been somewhat aroused by her advances? In his defense, Tom does seem to be a man committed to family values: he has a wife (Kim Hamilton) who loves him, and a father (Jester Hairston) who worries about him. Maybe he’s also fully aware of what might happen if he got in any kind of scandal with a white girl. Still, when Tom is on the stand, he describes the incident as if he’s an adolescent boy who feels threatened by any kind of temptations of the flesh. Tom’s big scene is powerful, and the tearjerking performance by Brock Peters is something I’ve never forgotten—but there’s also that element of peculiar sexual logic it has going for it.
What about Atticus? Is he too archetypal? I can't say. I confess that I myself am probably not fully willing to slam the character. All of us have wished at some point or another that we could have had a father like Atticus Finch—and Harper Lee modeled the character off of her own dad—but Atticus Finch himself is such a larger-than-life character, he almost comes off as a tall tale. When the AFI voted him their #1 Hero, there’s a reason why he ended up beating Indiana Jones, James Bond and even George Bailey for that top spot: he’s a hero without error. Lee wrote him as an all-knowing wise man who knows what’s best for everybody. He believes in tolerance and nonviolence, even though he is not quite a full-fledged pacifist (he is not above putting a rapid dog out of its misery, and recognizes an act of "clear-cut, self-defense" at a key moment). Again, however, I’m not fully willing to slam Atticus as a character. I’ve always liked the way he is written.
Actually, parenting is a favorite theme in many of Robert Mulligan’s films. In Fear Strikes Out (1957), the father was a controlling man who pushed his son too hard—as opposed to Atticus Finch, who treats his children the way they ought to be treated. Inside Daisy Clover (1965) featured Ruth Gordon as a mother who loves her daughter but is powerless to save her from a viper’s nest of betrayals when she leaves home to become a movie star. The mother in Summer of ’42 (1971) is largely absent from the screen and totally oblivious to her teenage son’s sexual awakening, and the mother in The Other (1972) has gone mad. Alan Alda in Same Time, Next Year (1978) is distraught about his son’s death in Vietnam and decides to vote for Goldwater in hopes that he’ll drop the bomb. Sam Waterston in The Man in the Moon (1991) dotes on his daughters and, consequently, alternates between loving and hotheaded.
One thing I like about Atticus Finch is that he is not so foolish as to believe he is the only force of influence in his children's lives. A widower, he has hired Calpurnia (Estelle Evans) to serve as their mother figure, and cares not if the rest of the town objects to him running a multiracial household. He and Calpurnia both are aware that Jem and Scout's new friend Dill (John Megna), modeled off of Truman Capote, is a charlatan when he touts that he dad owns the L & R railroad--but he lets boys be boys. And he has a kind neighbor in Maudie Atkinson (Rosemary Murphy), one of the few people in town who understands that what Atticus is doing for Tom Robinson is right.
The most special thing about Atticus Finch is that he wants nothing more than for his children, Jem (Philip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), to grow up adopting his dogma of acceptance of others. Scout doesn’t understand why Atticus makes an effort to small-talk the cranky old Mrs. Dubose (Ruth White), and Jem can’t help but stare in confusion when Atticus resists getting into physical fights with Bob Ewell, especially when he molests the windows of Atticus’ car and, in a later scene, spits in his face. Atticus knew the day was coming when he’d have to explain these issues to his kids, and he has thoughtful answers for them. He explains to daughter, “if you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin, and walk around in it.” His talk with Jem is more disconcerting, but no less honest: “There’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep them all away from you. That’s never possible.”
Jem and Scout’s strong relationship with their father is, indeed, the heart of the picture, and one of the pleasures of To Kill A Mockingbird is seeing them attempt to adopt their father’s advice and become better human beings. Atticus has told Scout that if he were to refuse to defend Tom Robinson, he couldn’t hold his head up in town—he wouldn’t really be in a place to teach his kids how to distinguish between right and wrong. No doubt Atticus has given this same talk to Jem at one point or another, and both Jem and Scout practice following Atticus’ advice during the famous scene in which Walter Cunningham’s mob comes to the local jail, attempting to lynch Tom Robinson. Jem and Scout take matters into their own hands, and intervene: Scout’s sudden, innocent conversation with Cunningham shames the mob and lowers their guard. And Jem refuses to leave his father’s side. From a parent’s perspective, Atticus is doing the right thing when he orders his kids to go home; but Jem defies him, perhaps because he has realized that he could never hold up his head in town if he were to abandon his father to the mob and, quite possibly, watch him get hurt. Notice that, after the mob leaves, Atticus patiently asks the kids to go home, and then quietly pats Jem on the back, effectively recognizing his son’s courage. In this scene, Atticus, Jem and Scout all come away as heroes.
Roger Ebert criticizes this scene in his 2 ½-star review, claiming that it would never have happened this way in real life. I don’t agree with Ebert on this particular scene, although I will consent that the rest of Ebert’s complaints about To Kill A Mockingbird are valid. When I first read Ebert’s review as a young teenager, it outraged me. But reading it again, I can’t deny he has a point when he attacks the film’s more dubious scenes, which all follow Atticus’ courtroom speech: for example, after the racist jury finds Tom Robinson guilty, there are, strangely, no loud protests from the black crowd up on the balcony. The scene is written and directed in such a way so that the emphasis is put entirely on Atticus’ heroism for defending Tom, and hardly at all on the harsh realities of Tom’s fate.
Later, when it is revealed that Tom has been shot dead upon escaping from custody, Horton’s Foote’s screenplay veers into a most awful direction: it makes it look as though it was Tom’s own fault for running away from the police. In Harper Lee’s novel, the authorities shoot Tom seventeen times, clearly indicating that he was the victim of a racist shooting. Foote’s screenplay, however, omits this crucial detail, and changes the circumstances of Tom’s death to make him look like the guilty one instead. And Ebert also validly criticizes the scene in which Atticus breaks the bad news to the Robinson family, writing that “the black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.”
But I have not even gotten yet to the most offensive sequence in the film, one that both Harper Lee’s novel and Horton Foote’s screenplay share in common: the ending. On Halloween night, Jem and Scout, on their way home, take a shortcut through the woods, and are then attacked by a deranged Bob Ewell before the mysterious Boo Radley (Robert Duvall) puts Ewell’s cowardly actions to a stop, and kills him. I’m not going to lie: this ending makes me feel good. It makes me happy to know that Boo Radley turns out to be a nice guy after all, that he comes to the children’s rescue and that he rids the town of the vile man who caused an innocent black man’s death. And that is precisely what it is about the manipulative effect of this ending that disgusts me.
Harper Lee wrote this ending for a very obvious reason: she couldn’t bear to end her novel without killing off the villain. She and Horton Foote couldn’t end the story without making sure that the racist pig got his just desserts. They didn’t give a damn about Atticus Finch’s universal message of tolerance and nonviolence: they wanted eye-for-an-eye justice to prevail at the end of the story. They wanted to see a knife stuck up Bob Ewell’s ribs. I think this is nasty.
As Matt Zoller Seitz writes, “think about how Lee's universe contorts itself to ensure that the wicked are punished anyway (Halloween costume; knife), suggesting that there's a higher law that will eventually hold everyone accountable (a fine lesson if you're devout, but what if you're not?).” Just to add to Seitz’s criticisms, the reason why the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird rubs me the wrong way so much is because it’s such a clumsy way to conclude such an innovative story: the ending of To Kill A Mockingbird is formulaic, irrational, and even nihilistically sentimental. When Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) decides he’s going to cover up the incident and file a report stating that Ewell simply fell on his knife, it is not because Tate is concerned that all of Maycomb is going to be vulgarly celebrating Ewell’s death—it is because Tate is worried that Boo Radley will be overwhelmed by all the attention. Tate thinks this would be a “sin”, which makes absolutely no sense to me. Nor, for that matter, does Scout’s claim that Tate’s decision is “right”, or her comparison of Boo Radley to an innocent mockingbird. I agree more with Atticus, who looks at Scout quizzically when she makes this random comparison, asking her, “how do you mean?”
Did Mulligan and his longtime producer, Alan J. Pakula, recognize these as flaws in Foote’s screenplay? Not likely. I’m sure they were wholly committed to being as faithful in interpreting Lee’s pages as accurately as possible, for fear of aggravating unforgiving fans of the novel. In this sense they can only be lauded, as the film does remain one of the most faithful adaptations of a work of literature to date. Never mind the awkward turn of events in Lee and Foote’s dramatic structures, which happen mostly towards the end of the story and are never really explored.
In a nutshell, every single one of the later scenes following Atticus’ courtroom speech is flawed. That’s why I prefer, instead, to turn back to the courtroom speech itself, which has continued to stay with me to this day. “Now, gentlemen,” Atticus reminds the jury, “in this country, our courts are the great levelers. In our courts, all men are created… equal. I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of our courts and in our jury system. That’s no ideal to me—that is a living, working reality!” Atticus' code of honor is dutifully accepted by his peers in the courtroom: Judge Taylor (Paul Fix), to the credit of Lee and Foote, is not one of the more stereotypical characters in the story but, rather, a sensible man of the law who is clearly unhappy with the jury's final verdict, slamming the door on his way out. The prosecutor, Gilmer (William Windom), never objects to Atticus' questions to the witnesses, and vice versa. They all understand that they have jobs to do, and they have a trial to settle.
As for Atticus? He appears to be a man who has spent his entire life believing there is good in people, and has been thankful for it despite personal tragedies. No doubt the death of his wife has left a hole in his heart, and in one of Mulligan’s best-remembered shots in the film, we see Atticus sitting out on the front porch swing, listening solemnly to his sleepy children conversing about the memories of their deceased mother while he has his arm stretched outward onto the swing—around a wife who isn’t there. It's probably the most haunting shot in the film, and the only scene in the film where Atticus stops functioning as a mouthpiece for Lee and Foote's worldviews and disappears into ambiguity, reserving a quiet moment all for himself.
Now that I have looked more carefully at To Kill A Mockingbird—now that I have analyzed it extensively, shot-for-shot, line-for-line—I think I can finally bring myself to be at some kind of peace with it. As Robert Mulligan’s most popular work, it will continue to be a controversial film, and I may never cease to take issue with some of its most disconcerting narrative flaws. But what continues to live on, for me, is Atticus Finch’s complete determination to do what is right, even when the majority of the townspeople of Maycomb rally up against him. His last words to that unflinching jury get me every time: “In the name of God, do your duty. In the name of God… believe Tom Robinson.” I’m not a religious person, but even though Atticus’ attempts to save him are unsuccessful, I hope that Tom Robinson went to a better place. And I hope, for that matter, that Bob Ewell went to a better place, too. I hope with all my heart that wounds were healed and lives were restored in Maycomb County when Jem waked up in the morning.