To Kill a Mockingbird
Few 20th century novels have been as warmly regarded as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Currently a perennial work taught in high schools around the nation, it was an acclaimed, award-winning work when released in 1961 as the southern author tried to recapture her childhood life in a small Southern town. I enjoyed the book as a student, then a parent, and now that I’m studying to become a teacher, recognize it as a great piece of literature and great teaching tool.
She wrote in 1964, “I would like to leave some record of the kind of life that existed in a very small world. I hope…to chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life as opposed to Gothic, as opposed to Tobacco Road, as opposed to plantation life.”
It was a story of rights and responsibilities, tolerance, fear of the unknown, race relations and many other issues. When first released, it kicked up quite a bit of dust, especially from people who felt maligned by her glaring spotlight on the small town and its small-minded people. But most everyone else embraced it.
The book screamed to be a motion picture and although it quickly obtained the rights, Universal Pictures was reluctant to take on a story that was as baldly about race relations as this was. Lee finally wrote the book after a series of cruel white hatred cost several young black men their lives. The civil rights movement was well underway but Universal wasn’t a studio prone to making social consciousness movies. They were about big stars and glitzy escapism.
Enter Gregory Peck, one of the most popular leading men of his day. When he said he was ready to sign on as Atticus Finch, the movie got made. Horton Foote trimmed the story, sharpening its focus so a huge percentage of the film focused on the trial of Tom Robinson while other threads and characters got ejected. Filled with a familiar assortment of supporting players (including Star Trek’s Brock Peters, Paul Fix and William Windom) and director Robert Mulligan delivered a visual record of a time rapidly vanishing from American memory.
The movie remains a classic and continues to show up on the American Film Institute’s varied lists, including noting that Finch is the number one Hero of All Time, earning him a spot here at ComicMix. And now, in time for its 50th anniversary, Universal’s centennial celebration kicks off with this release. The movie has been painstakingly restored and was today released on Blu-ray for the first time. The restoration work makes the film well worth a second (or third or fourth) viewing and makes for fine family fare. Yeah, it’s slow and deliberate, but done intentionally, capturing the feel of Depression-era Alabama. Elmer Bernstein’s score has never sounded better thanks to the audio work.
I wish the bonus features had been freshened but everything we’re provided are retreads from previous releases. It’s great to have them, though, notably the 90 minute Fearful Symmetry, a 1998 documentary about the novel and film, focusing on cast and crew interviews. There’s a mini-documentary on Peck, along with clips of his Best Actor acceptance speech from the 1963 Academy Awards, his AFI Life Achievement Award, and excerpts from “Tribute to Gregory Peck”. Mary Badham, who memorably played Scout, is featured in clips from an NBC interview she did more than a decade back. The film has commentary from Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula which is somewhat interesting but the facts are covered better in the documentary.
Still, this is a loving restoration and comes in a variety of editions and we heartily recommend it find a place in your library.