Thursday, September 2, 2021


Director: Robert Mulligan
Screenplay: Horton Foote based on the novel by Harper Lee


For whatever reason, Roger Ebert quietly posted a review of "To Kill a Mockingbird" back in 2001. It was so quiet, that I didn't discover it until 2003 after Gregory Peck's passing and I visited his website religiously and weekly at that time. One of the big discussion points in light of Peck's passing was that for whatever reason, while being one of the biggest and most beloved and attractive movie stars of his time, really only starred supposedly in only one truly, indisputably great film, and that of course being his Oscar-winning performance in "To Kill a Mockingbird". 

Well, is this true? Eh, well, the word "Star" is playing a big role there and Gregory Peck was a huge star in his time, one of the most beloved of the era but yeah, you don't see a lot of his other movies held up as quintessential great films, at least films we'd think of as his films. I would argue nowadays that "Roman Holiday" is probably his best film, but I think everybody thinks of that as an Audrey Hepburn movie before they think of it as a Gregory Peck one. I mean, he's certainly been in good movies, but indisputably great films, eh, (Shrugs) yeah, I can probably see some arguments over "The Omen" or "Spellbound" or some of his other special films, the Oscar-winning "Gentleman's Agreement" for instance, but I wouldn't call them indisputably great and otherwise I don't think anybody's really pining for how underrated "MacArthur" or "Captain Newman, M.D." are these days. It's not a correct assessment of his career, but it's not an unfair one. That said, when you have "To Kill a Mockingbird", Atticus Finch no less, do you even really need any more then one? 

Atticus Finch, is one of the most beloved characters in American literature, and on the silver screen, AFI listed Atticus back in 2003, shortly before Peck's passing, as the number one greatest cinematic hero character in the history of American film, beating out Indiana Jones and James Bond among several others. That was the light of the moment when I was looking up the film and stumble onto Ebert's review. One of the inspirations for this Canon of Film Series, as most everybody probably could've guessed was Roger Ebert's "Great Movies" pieces in his column, so I would've presumed that I would've at some point before his passing seen Ebert add the film to his collection, but that's the thing, this wasn't a positive review. It was a 2 1/2 STARS, negative review of the film that he wrote. 

It didn't get much attention at the time, but it's popped up periodically ever since, often being noted as one of Roger Ebert's worst reviews. What nobody in those pieces ever talk about is that, it's incredibly bizarre that he wrote the review at all. I literally have no idea why he wrote it; he didn't have to, the movie had been out almost forty years and there wasn't any kind of modern re-release of note at the time that corresponded to the review; he never reviewed it on his TV show, there's no discernable reason that I could find then, or now as to why he decided to bring it up but clearly something had dawned on him. 

I naturally didn't agree with him at the time, but looking at the review in hindsight, perhaps he had more of a point then even he realized. (Or perhaps, he did realize it and that's why he both released this review, but also kinda purposefully kept it hidden, fearing people using it against him or he was just hiding from angry Harper Lee fans.) Personally, my theory, I think he had the same issue I'm having, in that he probably originally thought about the movie for his "Great Movies" section, rewatched the movie in preparation for writing about it, and then realized the problems with the film were more significant then he realized and decided to write that instead. Long before this blog existed, when I first started writing the brief one-page essays that eventually evolved into this series, one of the earliest ones I wanted to do was on "To Kill A Mockingbird". I had of course seen the movie, remembered being incredibly stirred by it as a kid; at some point in my life, I probably would've easily listed it among my favorite and/or best movies of all-time. 

That said, I haven't gone back to watch the movie again, not on purpose; I may have caught old snippets and pieces skimming the channels here and there and get caught up a bit more, but actually sitting down and watching it again, not really. I think I thought I could just brush that off on the subject matter not being a pleasant one, but then again, there's plenty of movie that deal with racism in the South that I will watch over and over again. "Perhaps it was just was so powerful that I didn't need another viewing...?" I would claim that to myself, thinking that it's gotta be at least partially true, and it probably.

I mean, for a movie that's so beloved, from a novel that's arguably even more beloved, it's actually kinda surprising how little the movie comes up in discussions about great movies and film. Oh sure, when Gregory Peck's name's mentioned this is the first movie that everyone names, but how often is it brought up for any other reason? 

I mean, it does make some of these lists pretty consistently, but I don't remember it being screened or discussed in any of my film classes for instance. Not in college, I do know, like the novel, it's often taught in high school film courses, but rarely in college classes. I don't see too many classes or analysis on the complete filmography on director Robert Mulligan. It's easily his most famous film, but there's not a lot of discussion on the filmmaking of "To Kill a Mockingbird" either. 

Mulligan was one of those newer generation of filmmakers who got their work through the early years of television like Sidney Lumet or Robert Altman, and he made several good movies. He wasn't a one-film-wonder director; "Fear Strikes Out", his debut feature is still fairly beloved. His last movie "The Man In the Moon" was pretty memorable, and he's got several good movies to his credit in a career that spanded five decades. Not too many people can say they worked with Anthony Perkins and Reese Witherspoon. He was by no means a bad filmmaker who made one classic; personally, I'm probably most partial to "Same Time, Next Year", but he's not really a name that's regarded super highly today as a filmmaker. On his wikipedia page, a story notes that he was once in consideration for directing "Taxi Driver", but that screenwriter Paul Schrader talked about how he rejected Mulligan, as well as Robert Aldrich and Mark Rydell, two other famous directors of the time that are gonna be mostly forgotten in the auteur theory sands of time, because they need a complex director with a character like Travis Bickle.

(Shrugs) Schrader's probably not wrong. 

Really, Atticus Finch is a fairly simple character, all things considered. Mulligan's a good, solid director, but his best films are fairly straightforward ideas and stories that mostly don't have the most in-depth characters or portrayals of them. In that sense, "To Kill a Mockingbird" is perfect for him. In fact, that's kind of the problem, everything about "To Kill a Mockingbird" is simple. This is a story where a little girl manages to stop a lynch mob, like, man, if only.... 

Honestly, that's probably the big reason why it's continued to remain such a cornerstone, it's not a particularly deep text. It's a fairly simple look at racism and the South, through a white child's perspective; of course it's remained popular and taught so much in schools since it broke onto the scene. It's so simple, kids can contemplate and understand it pretty easily. 

That's not to say that that's not a good reason to teach it, nor it is a criticism nor for that matter does it's mean that it's a bad text. Actually, I didn't read even the book in my youth, for one reason or another I never had a class that taught it. I tried reading it later on, but honestly it seemed so similar to the movie that I didn't continue to the end or anything. There are differences, the big one being that Scout (Oscar-nominee Mary Badham) is more prominent as the narrator, and everything's shown from her perspective, but even I thought that was pretty clear in the film at the time, so I kinda expected that.

The novel was infamous for being Harper Lee's only book for decades, but Lee, fifty-five years later, did eventually publish "To Catch a Watchman", which was promoted as a sequel, but really was a found manuscript that acts more as a first draft for "...Mockingbird" and that really explains a lot. In "Go Set a Watchman", the idyllic southern liberalism of Atticus Finch is, well,... it's been questioned a lot more since this new book, which revealed that Atticus originally once attended a Klan rally and thought the Brown v. Board of Education stance was incorrect because Blacks weren't ready for Civil Rights, and even takes a case of an African-American defendant not because, he didn't want the NAACP getting involved. 

Now, "Go Set a Watchman" is somewhat more complex and nuanced then that as a whole, (Keyword being "somewhat") but it still puts Atticus in a more complicated light, one that definitely doesn't gel with this movie, or in many ways, the original novel. Also the general consensus is that the book isn't particularly good, some arguing that it shouldn't have been released at all.... (Shrugs) I haven't read that either, so I'm not gonna comment entirely on that, but yeah, from everything I've heard, this was a first draft that had a lot of ideas that got abandoned later on down the road, and for the most part, for the best and there is definitely some questionable actions that led to the book's publishing. It's definitely put the biggest damper on the legacy of the work, and now it's not entirely unusual to relook at "To Kill a Mockingbird" and question it's automatic inclusion among the Americana canon, both in book and film form. 

I suspect that, had Roger Ebert lived long enough and published that review now instead of back then, I don't think the backlash that's comes afterwards from it, would be as severe. The big criticisms that I can find of that review is basically that Ebert's not being a good critic here, because he's trying to give a disingenuous review of the movie because he's analyzing the film from a different perspective then what the narrative is intending, and that's a fair counter-argument to a negative review, including to Ebert's. However, the counter to that argument includes the question, "Is this the best possible perspective the movie could/should take", or even "Is this a good perspective to begin with to tell this story?" And why not look at the film from a different perspective then it's forcing us to show; should've we only look at any media only through the perspective of those who are most going to find the work beloved? Only see the piece of media from the perspective of the audience it's most actively courting? Especially on subject matter like racism, this is a question that frankly shouldn't be ignored, and frankly, no, on that level, well, the answer to all those question is a resounding, no; "To Kill a Mockingbird" flatly fails.

I certainly am not deleting the film from the history banks; despite all this criticism, I do love the film. It's still stirring after all these years, and yes, if you do find yourself more in Scout's perspective, then watching her father defend an innocent black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) from rape charges is stirring. If the movie comes up anywhere else in regard to "To Kill A Mockingbird"'s greatness as a film, it's that it's a great courtroom drama. And yes, this is a Canon entry for a reason; while Ebert might not have seen the film as viable for his "Great Movies", but for this Canon of Film, greatness helps but it is not an essential requirement. 

That said, this is not the greatest literary text on racism in America, and to paraphrase Princess Weekes's recent "It's Lit" episode on the book/film, which, yes was the original catalyst for why it's been on my mind, I'll post the Youtube video below, there are other texts that "To Kill a Mockingbird" should be paired with when being taught to kids, especially ones from African-American authors to give differing and more complete visions of racism in America. The same can be said about pairing it with movies; pairing "To Kill a Mockingbird" with say, "The Hate U Give" for instance, (both the book and the film) sounds like a better idea then teaching it alone. I'm sure there's plenty of other texts as well. 

I think the ultimate question of "To Kill a Mockingbird"'s dominance over our literary, media and cultural canon isn't why it's been so omnipresent over all this time since it's release, it's the question of, what exactly has it's dominant presence, caused to be left out of our literary canons over the years? The true irony of the piece, Atticus asks us to consider things from others' points of view, to climb inside their skin and walk around in it, and yet, 'cause of "To Kill a Mockingbird", just like the All-White Jury, we just didn't do that, at least not as much as we probably should have. 

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