I distinctly remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade English. From the way we were introduced to it and the opening questions one has about how Jem got hurt straight through to the final page, I was transfixed by it. The mystery of Boo Radley, the horror of racism, Jem & Scout’s relationship with Atticus – it was a novel I couldn’t put down.
It wasn’t until years later that I got the chance to see the Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Mulligan, but when I did, it didn’t disappoint. And, what’s more, it is just as wonderful today in its newly released, Blu-ray incarnation.
The 1962 movie features an Oscar-winning screenplay by Horton Foote and an Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Like Peck’s Atticus, the movie is a slow, methodical piece, always in control and always knowledgeable, and one which never reveals more than it wants. Like Atticus, it is wise about the world, wise about the best way to deal with people, and does its best to fight the good fight no matter the odds.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the town Maycomb, Alabama – a small, sleepy burg, in which poverty and racism are present, even if they’re not discussed. The film is less the story of Atticus than it is of Scout (Mary Badham), Atticus’ daughter, and her coming to grips with how the world works. Scout’s mother died when she was young, and she has been raised by her father. Scout spends her days playing with her older brother Jem and, despite the family having a female maid who watches over the kids, the presence of the men in Scout’s like has led her to be an all-out tomboy.
Over the course of the film the story of the mysterious Boo Radley, a neighbor whom they never see but is rumored to have done something horrible, is discusses, as is Atticus’ current case in which he must defend an African American, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in a rape trial.
From even before the trial starts, it is clear that many people in the town have it in for Tom Robinson, and once the trial does begin, it becomes all too clear that there is absolutely no evidence that Robinson is guilty. The question is more of whether Atticus can overcome the town’s racism than it is of whether he can prove Tom’s innocence. Jem and Scout get to watch all of this unfold, and it radically alters their perception of not just who their father is, but also the people in their town, and right vs. wrong.
Certainly one of the best elements of To Kill a Mockingbird is its ability to tell its tale and delineate right from wrong without ever being overly preachy. Some of this may be a question of the film being 50 years old, but its asking the viewer to stop and think about the lives of those around them is as important a message today as it was then.
The Blu-ray release of the film looks absolutely outstanding. An astute viewer may notice the occasional bit of visual noise, but that is exceptionally rare. Clearly, a great deal of effort went into restoring the film, and the result is a truly incredible amount of detail and clarity to the image. A black and white movie, the number of shades of gray in the visuals are astounding. I can’t imagine the film having looked any better when originally shown in theaters. The release has been given a 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as well as a 2.0 mix. Both are, like the visuals, exceptionally clean, with the surrounds mainly being utilized for the film’s score.
The release also comes with a large number of special features even if most of them are in standard definition (and from a previous release). The one HD feature is something of an advertisement for Universal’s 100th anniversary and is a discussion of how they’re going about restoring films. Despite the definite advertising feel to it, the look it offers at the restoration process is fascinating. There is also a commentary track with Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula. Two feature length documentaries are present – one on the film and the reality of the cultural from which it (and the book) sprung. The other is a piece on Peck himself. There are then other pieces on Peck as well: his Oscar acceptance speech, a portion of an AFI tribute to him, and an Academy tribute to him. The release is rounded out with an interview from several years ago in which Badham looks back on her experiences on the film, an booklet, a DVD copy, a digital copy, and a trailer. On the whole it is a good, varying assortment of items and presents a full look at what want into the film and who made it.
Fifty years later, To Kill a Mockingbird is every bit as relevant, as interesting, and as wonderful a film as it ever has been. It is full of great performances, high ideals, and a coming to grips with reality which is as upsetting as it is inevitable. It is a must watch film and this is a great way to see it.