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To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition

Director: Robert Mulligan
Cast: Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, John Megna, Frank Overton, Robert Duvall, Brock Peters, Philip Alford

(US DVD: 31 Jan 2012)

A seminal Hollywood film featuring Atticus Finch, one of the silver screen’s greatest protagonists. It’s easy to find words like those written about To Kill a Mockingbird just about anywhere online. It’s just as easy to write and say them.


But is it easy to view this movie with fresh eyes and take a critical look at it? That’s a hard task. I did my best with the assignment when I placed this new Blu-ray release in my player.


A younger person weaned on films made in the ‘70s through today might scoff at this black-and-white movie’s seemingly quaint tone, particularly during the first act. There’s almost a Leave it to Beaver quality to it, from the acting to the style of the music. And the story is set in the South during the early ‘30s, a time and place that’s been romanticized ad nauseum.


If you’re one such person, stay with this film past the first 20 minutes. Give the narrative a chance to develop. Let the stark black-and-white photography expose the story’s rough underbelly. The ominous Radley house. The shockingly blatant racism. The rape case in which Finch takes up the defense of a black man wrongingly accused. Suddenly sitting in a treehouse and rolling your sister down the street in an old tire doesn’t seem so quaint, anymore.


There’s a reason why Harper Lee’s novel, on which this movie was based, won a Pulitzer Prize. There’s a motive behind a few decades’ worth of English paper assignments. This truly is a seminal work featuring one of Hollywood’s greatest protagonists, and the less you know about it before watching it, the better. Put aside any preconceived notions about the first half of the 20th century and give this movie a chance.


If you’ve seen To Kill a Mockingbird before, then you know what to expect from this film. You just want to know if it’s worth buying on Blu-ray. If you have the previous standard-def DVD edition, then you already have nearly all the bonus features on this disc. If upgrading to an immaculate high-definition version of the movie is important to you, then the double-dip is still worth it, even if you won’t find much that’s new among the bonus material. (If a portable version of the movie is also important, then you’ll appreciate the digital copy that you can load on your iPhone, iPad, or other similar device.)


This 50th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird on Blu-ray features all of the bonus materials in the previous two-disc DVD edition, along with a few new goodies that take advantage of the new format. The film and most of its bonus materials are also included on a separate standard-def disc, and a code for a digital download is thrown in as well, so you can load the movie on a portable device.


The new bonus features on this disc include BD Live, which promises Internet-enabled features that weren’t available when I tried to access them. There’s also U Control, a picture-in-picture feature unique to Blu-ray that has Cecilia and Anthony Peck, two of Gregory’s children, narrating biographical information about the cast and crew; interviews culled from the Fearful Symmetry documentary will also pop up. Finally, we have a brief piece that looks at Universal’s efforts to restore and preserve its classics for the studio’s 100th anniversary.


The real meat of the bonus features is found in the materials ported over from the previous release; a DVD of the film and some of these materials is also included in this package, so you can buy it now even if you don’t have a Blu-ray player yet. Unfortunately, it’s all presented in standard-def, but it’s still worth watching. The aforementioned Fearful Symmetry gives us a 90-minute look at the making of the film, with plenty of comments from Peck, the child actors as adults, producer Alan Pakula, and others connected with the film. In addition, people living in the town where Lee grew up offer their thoughts on that era and the climate that gave the author her inspiration.


As if that wasn’t enough, A Conversation with Gregory Peck offers a 90-minute examination of the star’s life and his long career in Hollywood. Made in 1999, this documentary follows Peck during his a tour for his one-man show, interspersing Q&As with audiences with off-stage moments. Clips from his most-beloved films are liberally sprinkled throughout. (Note that neither of the 90-minute documentaries are on the standard-def DVD in this set, since they obviously wouldn’t have fit on the platter.)


Peck’s career is also celebrated in ten-minute chunks from his AFI and Academy tributes, along with his acceptance speech for the Oscar he won for his role as the lawyer, Atticus Finch. Actress Mary Badham also gets an opportunity to reflect on her experiences making the film in the 12-minute Scout Remembers; unsurprisingly, she has fond memories of Peck, who she says behaved off-camera the same way his character does in the film.


Finally, director Robert Mulligan and Pakula get together for a commentary track that features plenty of anecdotes from the making of the film. The two were good friends, and it shows in this discussion. While a second, more scholarly track would have been appreciated, given the book’s status in literature and the obvious need to contrast it with the film, I can’t give this release any demerits for such an exclusion.

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