Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Starring: Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton, Rosemary Murphy, Ruth White | Director: Robert Mulligan | Writers: Harper Lee (novel), Horton Foote
This B&W period piece (deep-south U.S., 1930s) is generally considered one of the most unforgettable films ever made, and I agree.
Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), an honest, widowed small-town lawyer, is called on to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping a white woman. The film is basically seen through the eyes of Finch’s children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Philip Alford), and is voice-over narrated by Scout as a grown woman recalling the way things used to be.
Although the trial and its surrounding events are the centerpiece, the film’s other primary focus is the children’s adventures; these include swapping tall stories about a reclusive retarded man, Arthur “Boo” Radley (screen debut of Robert Duvall), and egging each other on to invade the Radley premises and catch a glimpse of Boo. Of course, they’re being thoughtless and mean, but they don’t realize that; they’re just doing what kids do. At the end, the two storylines converge in an unexpected way.
This film was made by the “old” Hollywood standards; it doesn’t have the profane language and explicit violence that are standard content today. Even in a killing scene, it uses an indirect method of showing the action. Atticus is a very positive role model. The children do a lot of growing up during the course of the film. Their insensitive behavior toward the Radleys, and the racist attitudes of most of the white community, are clearly shown as wrong.
Remember, though, that children are not just little adults. A preadolescent child who is still in the latency period (has no interest in the subject of sex) should not be exposed to an emotional courtroom drama about rape. There’s also an all-white jury which is willing to convict a black man even though his lawyer, Atticus, has shown reasonable proof that the crime never even occurred; and a hate-filled man who wants to get even with Atticus by attacking his children. As a parent, you’re the best judge of when your own children are ready for this kind of material—so use your best judgment.