To celebrate its centennial, over the course of 2012, Universal Studios will release 13 of their masterpieces on Blu-ray after a full restoration. Titles include, “The Birds” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “All Quiet On the Western Front,” “Buck Privates, “Jaws,” “The Sting,” and “Schindler’s List.” Appropriately enough, this campaign starts off with that most American of films, director Robert Mulligan’s stunning 1962 adaptation of novelist Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Set in the Depression-era South in 1936, our narrator (Kim Stanley) is Scout Finch (a remarkable Mary Badham), who tells the story as an adult looking back on three defining summers of her childhood as an impoverished tomboy who lives in a small town with her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) and their father Atticus (Gregory Peck), a lawyer and widower in his middle age.
The story’s themes are as rich as they come. We see everything through the eyes of the children and though they don’t realize it at the time, this is when they lose their innocence — thanks to events that involve the very worst kind of bigotry, the kind that leads to death and murder. But they will also learn to overcome their own childish prejudices when, as children will, a man they turned into a boogeyman turns out to be just the opposite.
For his portrayal of the quietly heroic Finch, Peck would win one of the biggest no-brainer Oscars in Hollywood history. In the special features, Peck’s co-stars and others involved in the film’s production (he would remain friends with many of them, and Harper Lee, until his death in 2003) compliment the actor by saying he won an Oscar playing himself. That might well be the case, but possessing certain qualities and having the talent required to portray them on screen are two entirely different things.
Peck’s is an iconic and career-defining performance that emanates from within and creates the unforgettable presence of a man burning with dignity, disappointment in himself, and the loneliness that comes with the unthinkable loss of a soul mate before the promise of growing old together can come true. What we remember about Atticus Finch is not what the man did or said. What we remember is how he made us feel, and that can only be the by-product of an actor in full command of his craft.
It is Peck’s performance and Peck’s performance alone that elevates “Mockingbird” above that very worst of self-involved, patronizing, and racist Hollywood genres: the white liberal savior who’s come to rescue all those poor, helpless black folks. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” That might be one of the most memorable and touching moments in the film, but watch it again and you’ll see that Finch doesn’t even realize the gallery is standing in his honor. Through no fault of his own and not for lack of trying, he’s failed and that failure isn’t even complete. Atticus is no one’s savior, and without a word of exposition, Peck never lets us forget that.
What Atticus is, though, is the perfect hero for his time, a man who sees the raging injustice around him and fights against it, but who also understands that in order to be effective, in order to kick the ball down the field, he can only fight so much — and this is where the disappointment with himself comes from. He’s also the perfect father who teaches his children through words backed by action. Most of all, he teaches them humility. Atticus doesn’t see himself as a hero, because trying to do the right thing doesn’t make you a hero. You’re supposed to do the right thing.
Finch is also a man who makes mistakes. When a rabid dog threatens his home, he’s quick to come home and put bullet in its brain. But when a rabid dog in the form of a man threatens him and his family, his pacifism goes too far and almost costs him his children.
Screenwriter Horton Foote would win an Oscar for a masterful adaptation that perfectly captures the atmosphere, mood, and tone of Harper’s work (Foote won a second Oscar writing again for Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), with 1983’s “Tender Mercies“). Elmer Bernstein, a composer not known for subtlety, put his famous largesse into the emotion of a perfectly minimalist score. Director Mulligan and cinematographer Russell Harlan were both nominated, and with the help of Oscar-winning art direction, create an incomparable look and feel that evokes all that is perfect about childhood in an imperfect world.
When you’re dealing with this kind of photography, Blu-ray is a must. The knotty trees, the front porches in need of paint, the dried-out lawns , tire swings, and worn-out clothing are characters every bit as important as the main players, and to see them with such clarity adds so much to the experience.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a grand piece of storytelling that not only represents the art of the motion picture at its most poetic, but also gives proper due to the humble, quiet, workaday heroism of everyday Americans who fill the bucket of a better future, one day, one selfless act, one drop at a time.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird” is available at Amazon.