Tuesday, December 25, 2012

This Day in Film History (‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Opens)

December 25, 1962—To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller by Harper Lee, premiered in Los Angeles on Christmas Day. More than anything, the date related to Hollywood’s traditional need to open films so that they would be fresh in the minds of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as they nominated films for Oscars.

But for many viewers over the years, the timing seemed especially fortuitous. The hero of the novel and film, Atticus Finch, embodied Christian virtues—justice, nonviolence and the Golden Rule.

In the American Film Institute's 2003 listing of the top 100 movie heroes of all time, Finch outranked the likes of Indiana Jones, James Bond, Rick Blaine, Will Kane, Clarice Starling, Rocky Balboa, Ellen Ripley and T.E. Lawrence. You’ll notice that all of these other figures are handy with their guns or fists.

Mockingbird hints that Finch, too, could have been among this company (he does, after all, gun down a rabid dog with one shot, even though he hasn’t picked up a firearm in years). But this Southern attorney makes the list not because of his physical prowess but his moral authority.

So immense and continuous are the idealism and integrity of Atticus that a post by one blogger, Bob Ratcliff of “Think and Believe,” takes issue with the notion that the attorney is a “Christ-like figure.” Atticus doesn’t quite cut it by this standard, he notes, because he is “unceasingly noble.”

Such figures, he notes, generally work best when their embodiment of Martin Luther’s deus absonditus (hidden God) is concealed. Or, as Ratcliff explains more fully in yet another post:

“Usually, Christ figures are not overtly religious, nor are the films in which they appear.  The best Christ figures are flawed and fallen creatures like you and me, and hence don’t represent Christ’s fully loving life. Yet something about their story–often the way they die–mirrors Jesus self-emptying, self-giving love, and this is what makes them Christ figures.”

All excellent points. Still, some aspects of this hero’s life, especially as embodied by Gregory Peck (who, according to this Huffington Post interview with Mary Badham--Atticus’ daughter Scout on film—“was Atticus, there's no two ways about it”), presented several examples of Christ in action:

*Never harm the least of God’s children. Atticus warns his children that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird because they “don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... but sing their hearts out for us.” Or, as Jem puts it: “Atticus says cheating a black man is ten times worse than cheating a white.” Because they are at the bottom of Southern society in every way possible, a crime against African-Americans finds them especially vulnerable.

*Forbearance in the face of ridicule. Atticus knows that he is derided all over Maycomb for defending African-American Tom Robinson on rape charges. But he holds no bitterness toward lifelong neighbors and friends who shun him for his role in the case.

*Nonviolence. Like Christ in Gethsemane, Atticus not only refuses to use force against those who ridicule him or even threaten his life, but forbids its use by those who would defend him. Thus, he makes Scout promise that she won’t get into fights in school over this, despite the “ugly talk” she’s sure to hear.

*Teach children. For many, Christ is at His most approachable when he draws children to Him. Atticus' sense of responsibility to his children is doubled not just because, as a widower, he has no wife to help him, but because he is the primary defense against Scout and Jem absorbing the same false values that define the Jim Crow South. 

*Willingness to endure mob threats. On his way to the Cross, Christ is continually spat on, beaten, and ridiculed. His response: “Forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” At the jail, an angry mob is ready to do in Atticus himself, not just his client, for a defense that, by the white male Southern code, is an unpardonable offense. But Atticus does not flinch. He is willing to stand alone, as Christ did. Here, the rabid-dog scene becomes a metaphor for fighting the infection of racism. Everybody else hides inside the house. Even the town sheriff, unsure of his own shooting ability, won’t pull the trigger. It is left to Atticus—on the deserted street of a Southern town, and in court—to stand alone against a threat. Indeed, as I noted in a prior post, Atticus' determination to provide a positive example for his children is so fierce that his quiet but firm defiance even puts Jem and Scout in jeopardy when they encounter a lynch mob at the jail, ready to seize Tom Robinson--and Atticus, if he doesn't step aside.

Atticus is based on Harper Lee’s own father, Amasa Coleman Lee, an Alabama attorney, newspaper owner, and state legislator, who had defended two black men who were convicted and hanged. The experience was, evidently, a searing one for him, as he never took on another criminal case.

The lack of emotional complication or moral searching in Atticus that, according to Ratcliff, might have made him more of a “Christ figure” can be best understood in the instance of Amasa Lee, who did not support civil rights for blacks until late in life (and who, on a personal level, was even more personally unbending than Atticus in his refusal to wear weather-appropriate garb on a steamy Southern golf course). By contrast, the only hint of a human fault on the part of Atticus in Horton Foote's sensitive screenplay comes in that rabid-dog scene, when, after shooting the animal, he pauses in quiet self-satisfaction, with Peck’s face registering a moment of pride: After all this time, I still have it. (It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine Rock Hudson--the original studio choice to play Atticus--adding this, or other similar small but telling moments, to his portrayal.)

And yet, the need to create such a moral superhero is all too understandable. Peck’s Atticus was followed four years later onscreen by another lawyer of heroic dimensions: Paul Scofield’s Thomas More, in the adaptation of the Robert Bolt play A Man for All Seasons. In one sense, despite being in the more distant time and locale of Tudor England, More is more understandable to most contemporary viewers in his initial refusal to stay silent rather than openly defy the Oath of Supremacy that would make Henry VIII supreme head of the Church in England. The author of Utopia has no desire to be a martyr; it is forced on him.

But Finch and More became heroes of a dark time—the Sixties—when people needed men of intelligence and responsibility against the forces of state-imposed racism and authoritarianism. Moreover, at a point when the family and organized religion came under assault, they demonstrated that, despite confusion in their own households engendered by their indomitable determination, an upright conscience was the one family birthright that could not be dispensed with.

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