To Kill a Mockingbird, by Albert W. Vogt III

There were many books assigned in my high school freshman English class, and, unfortunately, I read few of them.  In all honesty, I read none of them cover-to-cover, and briefly glanced at only a couple.  I was a know-it-all who thought that mere prior knowledge of these works, along with whatever information about them society had given me through osmosis, would carry me through the course.  I have no idea how I passed it.  I do not even remember the grades I got it in it.  Poor Mrs. Hogans.  If by some miracle she reads The Legionnaire, please accept my humblest apology.  It took me well into my graduate school years to break myself of the awful habit of not applying myself, and sometimes I look back on my career and think, what an idiot I was.  While I have not corrected my mistakes by reading any of those great works of Western literature, I did recently watch the twenty-fifth greatest film of the American Film Institute’s (AFI) top 100, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  Hopefully this somewhat makes up for the oversight of my youth.

As the grown-up version of Scout Finch (Kim Stanley) who narrates To Kill a Mockingbird will tell you, nothing happens in 1932 in Maycomb, Alabama.  At this time, she is six-years-old (Mary Badham), and she lives in this sleepy, small town with her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and their widowed father Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck).  That summer, like many summers, they spend most of their time speculating about their next-door neighbors, the Radleys.  It is Jem’s belief, which he shares with their new friend, the out-of-towner boy Charles Baker “Dill” Harris (John Megna), that Nathan Radley (Richard Hale), the family patriarch, has his son Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), chained in the basement of their decrepit house.  In these conditions, Boo Radley is becoming a monster about which the children fantasize as only children can do.  Meanwhile, Atticus continues to work as a public defender for the county, but also taking on cases for other people in town.  It is in the former capacity that Judge John Taylor (Paul Fix) comes to Atticus with an unenviable duty: to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), an African American man accused of beating and raping Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), a white woman.  In this time and place, a black person being accused of such a crime is a virtual death sentence.  If you are unaware of the racial make-up of this era, then Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (James Anderson) coming to Atticus and asking the lawyer if he actually plans on defending Tom will remind you.  Atticus is firm in his conviction to do so, and this makes an enemy of Bob.  A year passes between the conviction and when the trial is set to take place.  Near the end of that period of time, Tom is brought back to town to sit in the local jail to await his time in court.  Sensing trouble, Atticus decides to go to the facility and sit in front of it.  Dill, Jem, and Scout sneak out at night to make sure Atticus is okay.  At first, no one is bothering him, but soon a line of cars parks out front, with Bob leading the way.  Their intention is to drag Tom out of his cell and likely lynch him.  It is only Atticus barring their way, but the children, to his horror, come and stand on the steps of the jail with their father.  It takes Scout innocently asking one of the members of the mob about his family to get them to relent in their murderous desire.  The next day is the trial, and it is attended by seemingly the whole town.  Because the entire main floor is jammed with white onlookers, Dill, Jem, and Scout take up seats with Reverend Sykes (William Walker) and the African Americans in the gallery upstairs.  There are four witnesses interviewed for the trail, two of which are Bob and Mayella.  They make their stories seem like Tom is guilty, although Mayella changes her version a few times.  A thread emerges, though, from Atticus’ questioning.  It is that Mayella claims that she had been strangled with two hands around her neck, and that she had gotten a black eye on the right side of her face.  When Tom is finally put on the stand, there are a few salient points that Atticus draws out to refute these claims.  The first, and most obvious, one is that Tom’s left hand had been rendered useless in a cotton gin accident.  The second is related, and it is that his infirmity has made him only able to use his right hand.  It is a compelling argument . . . if this were not Alabama in 1932.  You do not need to see the movie (though you should) to know what happens next: Tom is found guilty anyway.  To make matters worse, a distraught Tom tries to flee shortly after the trial and is shot dead in the attempt.  A few months pass, and it seems most of the town has forgotten about the trial.  Everyone, that is, except for Bob.  One night as Jem and Scout are returning from a Halloween pageant at school, they are attacked by Bob while on the path through the woods to their place.  Jem breaks him arm struggling against Bob.  Before he can turn on Scout, a stranger emerges and kills Bob.  This person then picks up the unconscious Jem and carries him home, Scout close on their heels.  Fortunately, Jem has suffered only a broken arm.  Meanwhile, Sheriff Heck Tate (Frank Overton) arrives with the news that Bob had been found dead.  When they question Scout as to what had happened, she points to Boo Radley, who had been standing unnoticed in the corner of the room.  At first, Atticus wants Boo taken in, but Sheriff Tate convinces Atticus that this is justice for what happened to Tom.  This is essentially where the movie ends.

In talking about To Kill a Mockingbird, I skimped a bit in covering how the movie develops the children’s characters. Indeed, there is an arc in the relationship between Atticus and Jem.  In the beginning, Jem is slightly embarrassed of his father, particularly when Atticus refuses to play football.  Jem is also mad because Atticus will not buy his son a gun.  The rest of the film features a growing respect of the son for his father, particularly when Jem discovers that Atticus is the best shot in the county.  Atticus is conscious of providing a good model for his son.  From a Catholic perspective, the best example of this is when Atticus delivers the news of Tom’s death to Spence (Jester Hairston), Tom’s father, and Helen Robinson (Kim Hamilton), Tom’s wife.  Jem has come along and is sitting in the car when an angry Bob arrives and demands to see Atticus.  Atticus comes out to face Bob, and is spit in the eye for his effort.  You can tell Atticus wants to do something about this insult.  Instead, he wipes it off with a handkerchief, gets in his car without saying a word, and drives away.  Raise your hand if you would have wanted to take a swing at Bob.  That should be most of you.  This sequence has so many beatitudes rolled into one moment.  Atticus nearly literally turns the other cheek.  It can also be likened to Jesus on the road to Calvary.  He was spat upon by those looking on, who saw Him as the sinner despite Jesus being able to know all their own sins.  Jesus had every right to stop and ask why they would do such a thing to Him, but He kept going because He was fulfilling that which had been ordained.  Atticus may not be thinking in terms of the Bible, but it all works well.

I am glad to have finally caught up with To Kill Mockingbird, even if it is only in movie form.  It does a good job exploring a Southern community at this time.  If you get a chance to see it, then do so.


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