In 2003, the American Film Institute released a list of the greatest film heroes of all time. And the name at the top of the list was one that, unfortunately, most modern moviegoers probably won’t recognize. No, it wasn’t Aragorn, or Neo, or Jack Sparrow, or any other big budget action star. It was To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, the Southern lawyer who faces down racism and bigotry in his town while striving to keep it from affecting his two young children.
Watching this movie, I felt a great deal of sadness. Sadness because, in this day and age, we have no one like Gregory Peck gracing the silver screen. If you’ve never seen Peck, never heard that wonderfully rich voice of his, you’re missing out on one of the great movie watching pleasures. The man embodies nobility and character in his film roles, and nowhere moreso than in his portrayal of Finch. At times, he doesn’t even seem mortal, but more like a monument, a towering demigod who rages against injustice. And then, as he interacts with and teaches his kids (most often by example), he’s the picture of humility and brokenness.
Most people would probably point to the film’s climactic courtroom scene, where Finch pleads with the jurors to do the right thing, as its finest moment, and that’s probably true. However, two other scenes also vy for my favor. The first is the opening credits, which are absolutely spellbinding in their beauty and otherworldliness. Within five seconds, I was transfixed and knew this would be a special film.
The second is when Finch’s children, Jem and Scout (the child actors in these roles are just wonderful, especially the young girl who plays Scout), join him on the steps of the jail as he faces down an angry crowd intent on lynching the young black man Finch is defending. As tensions grow and the situation becomes uglier, Scout responds with childlike wisdom and innocence. Looking back, it’s probably one of the greatest cinematic displays of a soft answer turning away wrath I’ve ever seen.