“The dignity of Atticus Finch. The purity of his motivations are what I was so impressed by.”
Growing up in Massachusetts, I’ve always enjoyed a great novel. Perhaps the only thing I enjoyed more, was a film that did the novel justice. A movie can easily ruin the story of the original book, but every now and then, a jem shines through. Nowadays it seems, we are hard pressed to find a true and noble hero in cinema. Dark, reboots of classic films permeate the showtimes. The old guard of charming, radiating heroes are gone, or have been updated to be more marketable to a more diverse, complex, and gritty generation. Superman now snaps necks, Luke Skywalker is now a recluse in the galaxy, and Han Solo is dead.
But there’s one cinematic hero who has stowed the test of generations and has maintained his symbol as a beacon for justice, fairness and respect…Atticus Finch.
Portrayed by Gregory Peck in an Academy Award Winning performance in the 1962 film, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a lawyer in southern town of Maycomb, Alabama. He is the single father of protagonist Jean “Scout” Louise, and her brother Jem. Atticus is the only lawyer in town willing to defend Tom Robinson, a black man convicted of sexually assaulting a white woman. Throughout the movie, Atticus teaches his children valuable life lessons, all the while building a defense for a man who no one else will defend.
Atticus’s appeal to the jury in his closing statement is widely considered to be one of the best courtroom scenes in cinematic history, and the most iconic from the actual film. The tragedy of the story is the fact that Atticus Finch, and Tom Robinson lose the case. It ultimately leads to the death of Tom Robinson, and embitters Atticus’s children to a degree. But he tells them to keep believing in humanity, and eventually, good things will happen. He ends the movie reading a story to his children.
Atticus’s heroics come from the fact that he is unflinchingly noble and altruistic in the face of racism, ignorance, and fear. He is stoic, and reasonable in every action he pursues, never once believing he is doing anything wrong. Despite all of this, he treats even his detractors with respect and understanding, refusing to attack a man who spits in his face. He is immune to the racism of the town, viewing Tom Robinson as any other client with the constitutional right to be defended. He only ever brings up race when its to make a point to his children, or to highlight the absurdity of the situation to the Maycomb courtroom.
Even with his pacifism, Atticus is revealed to be one of the best shots in the county, as he is called to euthanize a dog with rabies by the sheriff from a safe distance so it doesn’t harm any one. Important to note, he does this with great reluctance as he doesn’t like shooting guns. His skilled shot with a gun earns Atticus a condescending respect from even the most racist, and ignorant citizens of Maycomb.
It’s because of all this that Atticus Finch was listed #1 as the best hero in all cinema by the American Film Institute. He continues to be a revered symbol for justice even today, and even the most jaded high schoolers concede that he is the one of the best heroes of fiction. While Atticus’s reputation took a small hit with the 2015 release of the sequel novel, Go Set a Watchman, it does very little to detract from what Atticus did and stood for in To Kill a Mockingbird. Both on the screen, and off.