Join me on a cinematic road trip through the United States. One state a week, three films a state... can it be done?
Tuesday, 3 January 2012
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)
Dir. Robert Mulligan Starring: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, Philip Alford, Robert Duvall
When the American Film Institute named its greatest movie heroes of the twentieth century it did not pick a brave soldier, a dashing spy, a maverick cop or a gallant superhero. Its greatest hero never killed or even fought anyone. He was a widowed small-town lawyer who was shown fighting one case – which he lost. But To Kill A Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch was invested with such dignity, humility and goodness by novelist Harper Lee, screenwriter Horton Foote and actor Gregory Peck that it seems impossible to imagine who else would have been a better choice. In an era when lawyers are respected only slightly more than bankers or politicians it is gladdening to see a depiction of one quite so fundamentally decent. His reason for taking on the court-case of Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black farmhand accused of raping the white Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox) is simple: “If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town.” Peck, by all accounts, embodies Atticus’s finer points. When he won the Academy Award for Best Actor he was wearing a watch that once belonged to Harper Lee’s father, a present from the novelist. He said the watch meant more to him than the statuette.
Peck’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the quiet, noble Atticus is central to the film’s success. His white linen three-piece suit and pair of spectacles are now iconic. He has become a model of the noble lawyer, doing what is right and damn the consequences. The moment when he loses his case and is left alone on the courtroom floor to pack up his bag brings a lump to the throat. Silently the black townspeople segregated in the gallery rise to their feet. The Reverend Sykes (Bill Walker) instructs Scout “Jean-Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing”. It is a fitting salute.
Black and White and Red-Neck all over: Tom, Atticus and Mayella in court
Yet the film does not solely focus on Atticus. In many ways the trial takes up only a small segment of the storyline. It is something that rumbles along in the background like a far-away storm; occasionally you become aware of its presence but it is a long time until it breaks overhead. Instead the film centres on Atticus’s two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and her elder brother Jem (Philip Alford) and their friend Dill (John Megna). They roam around their hometown of Maycomb, Alabama, telling stories about the townsfolk: Miss Dubose (Ruth White) carries a Confederate pistol, and Boo Radley down the street is sort of an all-purpose bogeyman. However, their games and stories are done out of a sense of innocence. This innocence is established at the very opening of the film – the titles come over a child’s drawing and singing. I suppose the lesson is that hatred has to be taught and learnt. The job of a father must be to protect his children from as much of the bad stuff as possible. When Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his first film role) is finally revealed as the children’s angelic-looking saviour he, too, shares that childish innocence. Doing anything cruel to an innocent, much like killing a mockingbird, is the one sin people are not willing to commit. Atticus did not want the children present as he kept his solitary vigil outside Tom Robinson’s cell and he was willing to face down a lynch mob alone. However in all probability it was their presence and Scout’s innocent conversation with Mr Cunningham (Crahan Denton) that saved the day. Lynchings are done in private; they are not done in front of seven-year olds. The townsfolk just could not bring themselves to expose children to something like that.
Mockingbird was, like Fried Green Tomatoes, set in the 1930s. However, by the time the latter was released in 1991 racial segregation was history; it was still a live issue in the South in 1962. George Wallace won the Alabama governorship that year running on a segregationist platform. The release of To Kill A Mockingbird can hence be seen as a bold act by Universal. If I wanted to be critical however, I would point to the early days of a popular-culture trope. Atticus, the sheriff (Frank Overton) and the judge (Paul Fix) - the men in suits - all know that the trial result is wrong; the miscarriage of justice is down to the denim-dungaree-clad jurors. ‘Whites’ per se are not the villains – it is the poor, ill-educated, prejudiced section of the whites that are the villains – as exemplified by Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Ewell – like Bennett in Fried Green Tomatoes – is a violent drunk as well as a racist. The bad guys are the ‘poor white trash’. In both films the heroes are whites who step in to offer friendship and support to the blacks. It would be nice to see a film showing blacks empowering themselves rather than sitting meekly by. Though as Big George knew, and Tom Robinson sadly found out, attempting to do so could lead to far worse consequences.
What have I learnt about Alabama? Life and society in 1930s Alabama was rigged against blacks. Even where they found enlightened lawyers, sheriffs and judges – as in Maycomb – they still had racist juries to contend with if they managed to escape extra-judicial lynchings. Mind you, even the ‘good guys’ were able to bend the law to their own ends too, as Sheriff Tate does in the film’s coda, ruling that Ewell fell upon his own knife to protect Boo Radley. “Maybe you’ll tell me it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not to hush it up… I may not be much Mr Finch, but I’m still sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife.” Yet despite this, for the young, for the innocent, it was still a paradise, when the days seemed longer, the summers seemed hotter, and adventures could be found just down the street.
Can we go there? I’m afraid not. The inspiration for Maycomb was Harper Lee’s own hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (maybe halfway between Montgomery and Mobile). As Gregory Peck commented, the community she portrayed could have been anywhere in America. The actual film was shot at Universal Studios’ backlot in California, with the town of Maycomb, including over thirty buildings, being created there. However the courthouse was indeed modelled upon that in Monroeville, and Lee’s hometown (which also happened to be the hometown of Truman Capote, upon whom the character of Dill was based) gets a steady stream of visitors due to its connection. Every spring an amateur stage production of To Kill A Mockingbird is performed in the grounds and interior of the courthouse.