Wednesday, September 4, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


     If you look at film history, you’ll notice that a lot of really great movies were released in 1962. Some of them have gotten more and more recognition as classics over the years, like “The Manchurian Candidate”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, and “Lolita”. But others were immediately recognized as classics and received several Academy Awards, like “The Music Man”, “The Longest Day”, and the Best Picture-winning “Lawrence of Arabia”. But I have to say, out of all those films, “To Kill a Mockingbird” moves me the most, and I hope to show you why in this article.

     Based on the novel by Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird” features the great Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a widower lawyer living in Alabama during the Great Depression. But if the film focuses on him as the main character, it focuses equally on his children. Atticus, who is even known to his kids by his first name, is father to a pre-teen boy named Jem (Philip Alford) and his younger sister Scout (Mary Badham). Through the first act, we see this family react to the signs of the times, as poor families around them are struggling to make ends meet. But the children’s biggest concern is about a man living down the street—if you can call it a “man”.

     That “man” is Boo Radley, who apparently lives in the basement of his house, locked there for fear of terrorizing his family and the neighborhood. More than once, the children try to sneak a peek at Boo, but they never get to see him clearly. And even if they could, they seem too scared of the whole idea to stay on that property for very long. As the story progresses, however, Jem and Scout start finding little trinkets of things by the Radley tree, which, they believe, are left for the two of them. And as more time goes on, the children don’t even talk about Boo anymore… until later on in the story.

     As all this is going on, Atticus has found himself in one of the hardest situations that such a man could think to be in. An African-American man in the neighborhood named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) has been accused of raping a white woman named Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), the daughter of alcoholic Bob Ewell (James Anderson). Atticus has been asked by Sheriff Tate (Frank Overton) to defend Tom, and Atticus takes the case.

     A year goes by before Tom’s actual trial, but during this time, Atticus is able to teach his children about loving others. In one of my favorite scenes, Scout has had a rough first day at school, and she cries to Atticus that people got mad at her over the silliest things. Atticus puts his arm around her and calms her:

ATTICUS: If you just learned a single trick, Scout, you’d 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… Till you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

     This simple statement sums up Atticus’ feelings about why he needs to defend Tom Robinson—he even tells Scout later that if he didn’t defend him, he “couldn’t hold [his] head up in town. [He] couldn’t even tell [Scout] or Jem not to do something again.” He is defending Tom Robinson because he knows that no one else will. And he believes that if he passes his chance on helping Tom Robinson have a fair trial, Tom Robinson could be falsely convicted or even lynched. Atticus Finch has considered Tom’s point of view, and realizing how much Tom needs his help, Atticus chooses to stand by Tom during the trial.

     When the trial finally happens, things get very intense. Bob Ewell’s perspective says that he came home to find Tom with Mayella—then Atticus proves to the jury that Bob is left-handed and couldn’t have made the bruises that appeared on the opposite side of Mayella’s face. Mayella’s perspective is more complicated, but she even contradicts her story at one point, implying that she forgot details or she is lying. But when Tom Robinson takes the stand, he explains in tears why he is innocent. And although Tom’s testimony is most believable, and Atticus’ final statement to the jury (shot in one impressive long take) is convincing, the jury returns with a guilty verdict.

     It doesn’t get much better from there. Atticus gets word afterward that Tom has tried to escape prison and was consequently shot and killed. Atticus has to be the one to tell Tom’s family. But worse still, Bob Ewell finds him after the trial and spits in his face. Atticus is furious, but he simply wipes the spit off and leaves the Robinson house.

     Months later, Jem and Scout are walking through the woods after a party when suddenly they are attacked. The attacker, a left-handed man, goes after Jem with a knife and knocks him out. Scout is almost similarly attacked before another man goes after the attacker, and the attacker ends up fatally stabbed in the ribs. Before Scout realizes it, the other man has taken Jem away, and Scout runs home into Atticus’ arms where the doctor is taking care of Jem. And there, she finds someone she has been waiting to meet for a while: Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), the man who carried Jem home.

     The sheriff decides that Bob Ewell fell on his knife, Atticus is reunited with both his children, and Boo Radley is no less a man than the rest of them. A narration from a grown-up Scout closes out the film:

SCOUT: One time, Atticus said, “You never really knew a man until you stood in his shoes and walked around in them.” Just standing on the Radley porch was enough. …I was to think of these days many times: of Jem… and Boo Radley, and Tom Robinson, and Atticus. He would be in Jem’s room all night—and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.

     There’s this recurring theme of looking at things from another man’s point of view in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and that’s one of the things about the movie that I absolutely love. Does that relate to my faith? Absolutely. How am I supposed to love others like Christ loves them if I don’t consider their background? And maybe there are people around me with imperfect pasts. That cannot be a reason for me not to reach out to them. Jesus certainly didn’t do that. I’ve referenced the story in John 8 before about the woman caught in adultery, but it is a great example for thinking of others before judging them. When Pharisees test Jesus about sentencing an adulterous woman to be stoned to death, Jesus tells them: “Let any of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (8:7b) The Pharisees turn and leave, and Jesus tells the woman: “Neither do I condemn you… Go now and leave your life of sin.” (8:11b)

     My prayer for you and myself today is that we too would consider the world from another man’s point of view, so that we may get a better glimpse of how to be Christ to the world.

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