Mock-ing Bird-yeah!

STUDIO: Universal Studios
RUNNING TIME: 130 Minutes

Commentary with Director Robert Mulligan and Producer Alan Pakula
of Documentary: Fearful Symmetry

A Conversation with Gregory Peck
Award Best Actor Acceptance Speech
Film Institute Life Achievement Award
from Academy Tribute to Gregory Peck

Scout Remembers
Production Notes
• Theatrical Trailer

Many of us were introduced to Harper Lee by the rather loud thud her novel made as our junior-high English teacher unloaded it onto us with reckless abandon. The smirk on our teacher’s face was palpable enough to suggest a myriad of emotions – the least of all being what David Lee Roth once extravagantly crooned about. But it was in that reverberation across the classroom walls that held the alluring promise of discovering something exciting, a moral tale to which we were about to lick towards the center.

The Flick


The seemingly bygone era of the South, specifically it its inept innocence, is curiously on display all throughout Robert Mulligan’s film. In fact, Atticus Finch attempts to shield his own children, simply stating that he’d like to protect them from the evils of the world, but he can’t. It’s rather innocuous how the hardships that transformed this country since have the sturdy roots of change in men like the towering Atticus. And it’s in the town of Maycomb, where he lives, widowed, with his two adventurous children, the inquisitive Jem and the tomboyish Scout, where values he instills upon his younglings have a most profound effect. The fact that these standards relate to all human beings not only makes them so universal, but allows us to consider our own against those he practices. It was no fluke that Peck famously scribbled "Fairness. Courage. Stubbornness. Love." on the last page of his script.

In essence, To Kill A Mockingbird is about the fleeting days of childhood – exactly what it feels like being a seedling again. The shimmering era everlastingly appeared as if it were just on the cusp of the jump into young adulthood, where the world became more muddied and gray. That’s enough to make you wish you had just stayed home listening to your Twisted Sister records and your Golan and Globus flicks. However, it’s during this great upheaval and future unrest (where FDR told us only fear the fear itself) that a family grapples not only with a destructive Depression but also the evil fruits of racism and intolerance towards your fellow man. The latter of which occurs when Atticus agrees to courageously defend – against all odds – a falsely accused black man against a localized social injustice.

"I told y’all never to watch The Apple without me!"

The story, as adapted effortlessly by the great dramatist Horton Foote, has the narrative events recounted by a now fully-grown and wiser Scout. Her speech patterns are insanely soothing and recall a melancholy not unlike the times I furiously cried myself to sleep after the Super Mario Brothers Super Show went off the air. Remembering those long days where the wind carried with it the discovery of tolerance, open-mindedness, generosity, and respect, Scout’s Marcel Proust-like earnestness somehow made the recesses of my own brain feel like dear old Mother was telling me another bedtime story. Foote’s words miraculously don’t feel inhuman, but rather, have a sense of a time and a place, the nailing down of a transcendent past that will never outlive itself. Until the day comes when the Earth explodes, which as I understand, should be soon.

And since there are hints of bedtime stories in this film, it’s best to now talk about the moralistic center of the film – the one and only Atticus Finch. Lee’s singular creation, a hybrid of her own Attorney/Father, is in a class all by himself. But what makes the character even sweeter is Gregory Peck molding this once-in-a-lifetime role into something entirely different from the rest of his filmography. The side effect being that he’d be typecast in the role of the everyman’s father for the rest of his career. It’s tough to not think of them being as one. While his rough edges in Guns of Navarone suggested a sense of masculinity and playfulness (much like with the gorgeous Sophia Loren in Donen’s fun Arabesque or his rousing turn as the tunnel-visionary Ahab in Huston’s Moby Dick), in Mockingbird Peck is a colossal pillar of morality, staunch in his convictions, steadfast in his resolve, and entirely too understanding of the world for his own good. It’s in those criteria that he displays to his children and the iconography presented in Peck’s incredibly subtle ways that he was able to become this national treasure. This was a plum role that adapted to Peck and not the other way around, as I truly believe. One need only look no further during the scene where Atticus talks to Scout out on the porch, having embarrassed Walter Cunningham, Jr.

"Oh yeah? Well, one day, I might just up and Cold Blood on you!"

Atticus encourages Scout to learn just the single trick of walking around in another person’s skin. That way, he honorably mentions, you’ll understand things from his point of view. Truer words have never been spoken, and if I were much younger and impressionable than this sad sack of sarcasm and beaten-down expectations that I have become, I might have taken that to heart. Some have talked up the fact that Atticus is a rather formidable tool for the preachiest aspects of the film, but Foote’s screenplay coupled with Peck’s skills bring the moralizing and steadfast resolve down to basic human levels. It’s in one of his most famous speeches, where he orates that the courts are the great human leveler, and in the courts all men are created equal that the trick of Peck’s magician abilities allows his own words to never become mightier than they ostensibly are. His portrayal allowed him to show a side of himself to audiences, and for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Part of the reason Mockingbird succeeds so well is the sheer amount of craftsmanship behind the scenes as well. The opening sequence, designed by Stephen Frankfurt, is so incredibly and intelligently striking that it lobs you right into Jem and Scout’s world with a gentle tug of nostalgia. Speaking of which, Bernstein’s theme is so effortlessly created that I truly wonder what musical Gods were prodding him along; his is one of the great film motifs of all time. In today’s world, where most films struggle to find a common voice and grab you along for the ride, Mockingbird draws you in not with stylistic editing but with soft layers. This is so-called classical picture making at its best.

"Look Dad! It’s Peter Weller!"

As such, credit that to director Robert Mulligan, whose directorial style here isn’t built on flair or the audacity to keep you interested by using the tricks of the trade, circa 1962. Mulligan’s ballsy moves are fairly straightforward, using movement only when completely necessary and plunking the camera right down near the actors when their moments of Finchian values come to play. Although one of the rather misplaced elements of the film include two strange zooms during moments of intensive crisis, I can overlook that rather unusual choice of shots in regards to the rest of the rather terrific job he was able to achieve. In simplicity, he found some stunning results.

As an American institution, To Kill A Mockingbird is a slice of the basic human values that make men courageous, moralistic, and entirely responsible for standing up and doing the right thing when no one else will. I sincerely love this film for everything it has instilled upon me, and looking back, it has aged incredibly well.

9.2 out of 10

The Look

It wasn’t the making love to the cold car that bothered him,
but rather the realization that it wasn’t Christine.

Honestly, I’ve never seen To Kill A Mockingbird look as good as it does now, courtesy of the Legacy Series and a fine Anamorphic transfer. Compared to the last Collector’s Edition, the image is a shade darker and a tad softer around the edges, but for loosing that you gain a multitude in the aspect ratio department – the most complete 1.85:1 image I’ve seen of the film since I watched it projected on the Egyptian bigscreen. While nothing quite compares to that experience, I can say (with some caution thrown into the wind) that Russell Harlan’s amazing blending of blacks and whites has never looked better on DVD. I shudder to think what this film would have looked like if they had shot it in color. Thankfully, they didn’t. Score!

8.5 out of 10

The Noise

Upgraded to Dolby Digital 5.1, the modern sound boosting has added LOUD into the films aural vocabulary, but fits in context with the spiffy clean up job Universal has done with the prized film. And just in case you’re an audio purist, the film does come in Dolby 2.0 Mono, which should get you as close to the original audio tracks as if you were back in the 60’s swinging it fast and loose with the sexually transmitted diseases one theater aisle over.

9.0 out of 10

"All right! I’m ready to fight Gojira!"

The Goodies

There’re a lot of holdovers from the previous Collector’s Edition, but some of the new extra flourishes Universal has added should have a couple of you jumping for elated joy throughout the halls of ignoredville, especially if you’re living in a dorm.

First and foremost, there’s the same commentary track on the previous edition with Director Robert Mulligan and (late) Producer Alan Pakula (he perished quite tragically in 1998). I might be entirely too hyperbolic, but this might qualify for one of the BEST commentary tracks my prematurely inexperienced ears have ever heard. Focusing on a variety of great items to discuss, from directing children, to working on-set with actors, casting for the right part and its serendipity, and the simplicity to keep your audience engaged, Pakula and Mulligan really get down to the nitty-gritty in a very friendly way. I was thoroughly enraptured enough to not be distracted by other things (unnecessary bleeding, pornography and Krakens in the closet) while they played off of one another like two great riffs in the night of rock awesomeness. The fact that Pakula, whose intelligence knows no bounds, was taken from us almost a decade ago further angers me. His mere presence alone I could have listened to for hours.

Lawyers of all shapes and sizes were always thrown off
guard with Willy’s pattented crotch flop.

Next, there’s the newly added addition of Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s A Conversation With Gregory Peck (runtime – 1:40:00). You might call this documentary A History of Peck, as he recounts his career on a series of informal chats he gave prospective viewers during the last days of his life. This is the real Peck behind closed doors; down-to-Earth, reminiscing about amazing tidbits from his insane life (one recollection has him drawing Harper Lee’s father’s mannerisms and she joyfully commenting that he has a pot belly, just like her dad) and as steadfast and moralistic as Atticus was. In a way, though, I almost feel this film is too personal; we see a plethora of items from Peck’s days as a young Grandfather – like his Grandson mere seconds after he’s birthed and when he eats heartily with G.O.P-hated French President Jacques Chirac – that feel like we might be intruding on many intimate moments that I felt rather voyeuristic about. Maybe that’s just me. As it stands though, this is a miraculous insight into a piece of discovering who Gregory Peck truly was, and for that, I’d say it’s amazingly excellent.

Similarly, the second documentary Fearful Symmetry (runtime – 1:30:07) delves deeper into the making of Mockingbird and its socio-political relationship within our culture and the intertwining relationship it has with the old South (which, coincidentally, has some of the same identifiable traits. Old habits die hard). Ultimately fascinating, but held over from the Collector’s Edition, if you haven’t seen this incredibly thorough look into the films ramifications, I’d suggest checking it out, unless you’ve got MotoCross to play on your PSP.

"Next time I get to be the Wife."

Mary Badham recalls her fondest memories in Scout Remembers (runtime – 12:00), although if you’re watching this after the combo of documentaries on Disc Two, it doesn’t specifically break any new ground. Badham, the sister of the guy who made your favorite Scientologist dance in Saturday Night Fever and Matthew Broderick play some intense WarGames, is as candid and honest as she can be in this 1999 NBC Interview. Which is to say, she’s rather charming. Most of the Interview is scored to some incredibly schmaltzy music, so beware against the heart tugging chords of synth manipulation, lest you feel the need to get all Moog.

Then there’s the trio of Awards Ceremonial footage, with my favorite being the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award (runtime – 10:02). Peck tells this humorous story involving James Mason in Ireland and the punch-line is definitely not "he went into the sea." You could accuse him of being somewhat righteous from his pulpit, as he takes a stand against the media conglomerates clogging up the works a long time ago, but he’s earned it, especially with Dean Stockwell, The Fonz and Anthony motherfuckin’ Quinn in attendance. The Academy Awards Acceptance Speech (runtime – 1:28) is memorable for Peck’s only Golden Idol win, so it’s quite possible than only historians and completists will want to see him make a short speech and then dive into the stiff upper lip crowd. Finally, the Excerpt From Academy Tribute To Gregory Peck (runtime – 10:09), done after Peck’s passage from this withered Earth, is a vivid recollection, courtesy of his loving daughter with highlights from Peck’s storied career. It’s all atypical flashbacks and montages, so those who put up the sign of the Cross come Oscar time when the remembrance section rears around will most likely wish to watch this over and over again.

Even Actors were powerless to stop the book’s
insatiable appetite for human flesh.

The theatrical trailer (runtime – 2:53) has Peck recounting the tale of Harper Lee’s story and is most notable for the monolithic novel about to overtake and destroy his soul. It’s a masterstroke of projection and use of models. There’s also some Production Notes, which if you’ve watched everything else, should be (as my old teacher Mr. Kent once said) "old hat."

Lastly, the most welcome surprise of the Legacy set are the 11 Exclusive Reproductions of Original Theatrical Posters, which range from a variety of countries all over the world. These repros are such a treat to have to complete the whole cohesive Mockingbird experience and make great dinner coasters. I kid, since they rock the casbah.

9.0 out of 10

The Artwork

DVD!Almost generic. Granted, Peck’s iconic portrayal of Atticus instantly conjures up the right amount of feeling towards this film with typical aplomb. But with all of the spectacular reproductions of the film (from the great Romania to the thrilling Belgium) I wondered if maybe Universal’s Video Department might have considered going down a different route. But who am I kidding? It’s not like they’re going to listen to some no-name asshole spout off about what the cover art should have been like. So, taking it as we – the consumer – got it, the artwork is generic in regards to what it could have been, but adequate if you’re on the wagon of nostalgia, riding it home with the purchase (or rental) of this amazing film. So, until next time – begone!

7.5 out of 10

Overall: 8.6 out of 10