It’s somehow fitting that the greatest movie ever made about fatherhood is told through the eyes of a child. Innocent, free of guile, and still untouched by the compromises of adulthood, children literally look up to their parents with the unquestioning belief that they hold all the answers. They seem 10 feet tall. To Scout Finch, her father seems even taller than that. And as played by Gregory Peck, he is.
Based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Robert Mulligan’s 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird was adapted by writer Horton Foote — a Texan who understood the South and knew its prejudices in the marrow of his bones. Set in a dusty and inward-looking Alabama town during the Depression, the film tells the story of a widowed lawyer and father of two named Atticus Finch who’s assigned to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman.
Atticus becomes the target of the town’s bigotry while trying to show his kids, Jem (Phillip Alford) and Scout (Mary Badham), the difference between right and wrong by example. It’s a period piece, to be sure. But its lessons of tolerance, kindness, and compassion are timeless.
Peck was 45 when he made Mockingbird. By then, he was already Hollywood’s standard-bearer of onscreen stoicism and message-movie moral decency. He’d been nominated for four Oscars, but Atticus was the role that would finally win him one. It’s not hard to see why. He’s the type of father every man wants to be, and the kind of man every father hopes to measure up to.
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At the beginning of the film, a poor farmer stops by the Finches’ modest home to drop off a sack of hickory nuts as payment for legal work Atticus has done. Scout calls for her father to come outside, where he thanks the farmer. When the man leaves, Atticus tells Scout that maybe next time she shouldn’t come and get him. “I think it embarrasses him to be thanked,” he tells her. It’s hard to imagine a tidier tutorial in empathy and the importance of a human being’s sense of pride.
Later, after a local black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused of the crime he obviously didn’t commit, the judge assigns the case to Atticus. It’s clear Atticus doesn’t welcome this particular burden and the lynch-mob wrath that will come with it, but the expression on Peck’s face tells you that he knows that if he doesn’t defend Robinson, no one else will. Without spelling it out, he teaches his kids that doing what’s right isn’t always easy. Atticus will pay a steep price, his family’s safety will be put in jeopardy, but he never lets Jem and Scout see that cost. He always has time to read them a bedtime story, talk to them on a porch swing, or be stern with them when he has to.
Of course, no child ever appreciates that sort of thing in the moment. It’s only in hindsight that we understand it. But there’s a scene toward the end of the film where it finally dawns on Scout how special this man she takes for granted is. After Atticus has lost Robinson’s trial, he exits the courtroom. The black spectators in the balcony (the only vantage point they’re allowed to watch from) all rise to their feet. The black reverend whispers to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up…your father’s passing.” Whether you’re watching that moment on Father’s Day or any other day of the year, good luck not sobbing your eyes out.