Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 9 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 3; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely,
but whoever follows perverse ways will be found out”
Proverbs 10: 9
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
In screenwriter Horton Foote’s perfect adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel set in the rural South during the Great Depression small town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) risks his reputation by defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating a white woman. A widower, Atticus is raising his young son Jem (Phillip Alford) and daughter Scout (Mary Badham) aided only by his African American housekeeper.
The chilren’s relationship to their father is close, and a bit unusual in that they address him by his first name, rather than by the title “father” or “dad.” Up unto one fateful day he has been just “ole’ Atticus,” by no means special since he refused to play on the local baseball team like so many other fathers. Then comes the hot summer day when Atticus undergoes a kind of transfiguration—far from miraculous, though—in the eyes of his children Jem and Scout. A foaming at the mouth mad dog is spotted in the street near the Finch home. Sheriff Tate arrives with his rifle, but when he sees Atticus, he gives the weapon to him and asks him to shoot. The children are very surprised at this. Atticus calmly takes aim and fires. The dog falls in its tracks. The children are wide-eyed, especially when the sheriff tells him that their father is regarded as the best shot in the county. The children had never dreamt of such a thing of “ole’ Atticus.”
Life becomes harder for the children with Atticus’s decision to defend an African American named Tom Robinson, charged with raping a young white woman. We see that he is trying to nip racism in the bud when he corrects Jem from using the “N” word, and when Scout gets in a fight at school because a boy slandered her father, Atticus forbids her to fight any more.
Atticus is so quiet and unassuming that his children are not aware of what a special man their father is. At the beginning of the film Jem is upset with him because Atticus refuses to join the Methodist baseball team because, his father says, he is too old. Only after Atticus shoots the rabid dog at the request of Sheriff Tate do the two children learn that their father is “the best shot in the county.” Thus he is, in effect, transfigured thereafter in their eyes, no longer just their old dad.
Both children see their father’s courage on display one night in front of the courthouse when a would-be lynch mob arrives to drag Tom Robinson out of jail. The sheriff, needing to go out of town, had asked Atticus to sit in front of the door to the jail in case of such an event, hoping that his friend’s presence would prevent violence. The children had awakened, and not finding their father at home, had gone out seeking him. They rush to his side, and Scout, in a naïve but effective manner, defuses the situation when she spies the father of one of her classmates and addresses him by name. Talking to the man about his son, she slows down and stops, beginning to realize the tenseness of the situation. She apologizes to the man, and he replies that no offense was taken. He says to the other men that they should go home.
This is a glorious scene showing that when members of a mob are led to regain their individual identities, the mob is transfigured back to a group of individual persons. Author Harper Lee refused to treat the lower class whites in her novel as “red necks,” believing that even such prejudiced men maintained a spark of decency within that could be reached, especially when the one reaching out was a young child.
In the courtroom, where Jem and Scout observe most of the proceedings from the vantage point of the “Colored” section—the balcony—they see the lawyerly skill of their father, but despite his shattering the arguments of the prosecution and the testimony of the girl falsely claiming to have been raped, the jury members are swayed by their racism, and not the facts.
The children then witness the tribute that the courtroom balcony observers offer their father. It is a tribute that all might wish for, but which is received only by those who earn it through a life of integrity. The courtroom below has cleared out, leaving Atticus alone, placing his papers back in his brief case. As he walks up the aisle he is so lost in thought that he oblivious to the fact that all of the African Americans are still there in their seats. They and Jem stand up out of respect—all but Scout. Reverend Sykes, looking down on her, commands, “Miss Jean Louise. Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
Atticus Finch epitomizes the man of integrity celebrated in the book of Proverbs. He has little of the world’s riches–at the beginning of the film we see a poor farmer whom he has helped paying him with a sack of nuts–but as this scene proves, he has the “good name” and “favor,” which the author of Proverbs declares are “better than silver or gold.”
Indeed, he s more than just a man of integrity, as the scene with neighbor Maudie Atkinson and Jem shows. It is night, and Atticus has just gone out to the sheriff’s car to learn the sad news that Tom Robinson had been shot. There could be no appeal to the jury’s unjust verdict. At this low point Maudie says to Jem, “Jem.” “Yes, ma’am?” “I don’t know if it will help saying this to you… some men in this world are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us… your father is one of them.” And so was Jesus Christ.
The film is one of the great films about the South and racism because it was written by a Southerner who understood but did not condemn its people, just their racism. In the mob scene the men are not stereotyped as evil rednecks but misguided folk who still retain a spark of decency to which someone, especially an innocent child, can appeal and divert from committing an act that they probably would be ashamed of later. This is a scene that Gandhi would have been very pleased at!
Both the book and the film deserve all the praise and respect that they have garnered through the years. What a wonderful opportunity the film offers people of faith to explore such topics as racism, courage, nonviolence and most of all, integrity. And I should also add, they present us with one of the most admirable Christ figures of all time.
My book FILMS & FAITH: Forty Discussion Guides contains a guide for this film. It can be obtained for $10 (+$2 postage) from Visual Parables, 63 Boone Lake, Walton, KY 41094.