Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) set several benchmarks for ’60s era social justice films. It took a beloved story, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, which was already teeming with heart, and put Gregory Peck’s face on hero Atticus Finch. Not only Peck’s face but his nobility, bearing and demeanor came to represent the good fight. And that — perhaps purely artistically — has served us well and been one of the principal models for such portrayals, which, I think, is the definition of “iconic.”
The film also put a face on white racism in the person of Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the drunken redneck who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of beating and raping his daughter. Finch accepts the appointment as Robinson’s attorney because, as he famously tells his daughter, he would not be able to hold his head up in town if he did not.
Ewell is a monster, pure and simple, and one that is vanquished by guileless goodness (Robert Duvall’s Boo Radley), which is what we all hope for. The danger in such broad characterizations, were they rendered today, is that hate is not always writ so large. Evil does not always snarl and spew. Sometimes it coos and seduces. It doesn’t always live at the end of a hard-luck road. Sometimes it sits on top of a hill, behind pillars and stained-glass.
Even so, the film is an indisputable American treasure, understated and dignified. It’s sentiments about courage, respect and decency are for the ages. And the three young children who play Jem (Phillip Alford) , Scout (Mary Badham) and their precocious little friend from Meridian, Mississippi, Dill (John Megna), are golden.