The film’s young protagonists, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford), live in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the 1930s. The story covers three years, during which Scout and Jem undergo changes in their lives. They begin as innocent children, who spend their days happily playing games with each other and spying on Arthur “Boo” Radley (Robert Duvall), who has not been seen for many years by anybody as a result of never leaving his house and about whom many rumors circulate. Their widowed father, Atticus (Gregory Peck), is a town lawyer and has a strong belief that all people are to be treated fairly, to turn the other cheek, and to stand for what you believe. He also allows his children to call him by his first name. Early in the film, the children see their father accept hickory nuts, and other produce, from Mr. Cunningham for legal work because the client has no money. Through their father’s work as a lawyer, Scout and Jem begin to learn of the racism and evil in their town, aggravated by poverty; they mature quickly as they are exposed to it.
The local judge appoints Atticus to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), against an accusation of rape of a white teenaged girl, Mayella Ewell. Atticus accepts the case. Jem and Scout experience schoolyard taunts for their father’s decision. Later, a lynch mob, led by Mr. Cunningham, tries to lynch Robinson over Atticus’ objections. Scout, Jem and their friend, Dill, interrupt the confrontation. Scout, unaware of the mob’s purpose, recognizes Cunningham as the man who paid her father in hickory nuts and tells him to say hello to his son, who is her schoolmate. Cunningham becomes embarrassed and the mob disperses. It is undisputed that Tom came to Mayella’s home, at her request, to assist her with chopping up a chifforobe. It is also undisputed that Mayella showed signs of having been beaten around that time. Among Atticus’ chief arguments, he points out that Tom is crippled in his left arm, and that the supposed rapist would have had to make extensive use of his left hand in assaulting Mayella before raping her. At the same time Atticus demonstrates that Mayella’s father, Bob Ewell, is left handed, implying that he – rather than Tom – was the one who beat Mayella. Atticus also states that the girl had not even been examined by a doctor to check for signs of rape after the supposed assault. In his closing argument Atticus asks the all white, male jury to cast aside their prejudices and instead focus on Tom’s obvious innocence. In taking the stand in his own defense, Tom denies he attacked Mayella, but states she kissed him. He testifies he voluntarily assisted Mayella because he felt pity for her due to her circumstances. In a town where whites are viewed as superior to blacks, Tom’s sympathy for Mayella dooms his case, and he’s found guilty.
Atticus arrives home to discover from the sheriff that Tom has been killed by a deputy during his transfer to prison. The sheriff states that according to this deputy, Tom was trying to escape. The deputy reported that Tom ran like a “crazy” man before he was shot. Atticus and Jem go to the Robinson family home to advise them of Tom’s death. Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father, appears and spits in Atticus’ face while Jem waits in the car. Atticus wipes his face and leaves.
Autumn arrives and Scout and Jem attend an evening Halloween pageant at their school. Scout wears a ham costume, portraying one of Maycomb county’s products. At some point during the pageant, Scout’s dress and shoes are misplaced. She’s forced to walk home without shoes and wearing her ham costume. While cutting through the woods, Scout and Jem are attacked by an unidentified man who has been following them. Scout’s costume, like an awkward suit of armor, protects her from the attack but restricts her movement and severely restricts her vision. Their attacker is thwarted and overcome by another unidentified man. Jem is knocked unconscious and Scout escapes unharmed in a brief but violent struggle. Scout escapes her costume in time to see a man carrying Jem home. Scout follows and runs into the arms of a concerned Atticus. Doc Reynolds comes over and treats the broken arm of an unconscious Jem.
When Sheriff Tate asks Scout what happened, she notices Arthur “Boo” Radley standing behind the bedroom door in the corner of Jem’s room; Scout recognizes Boo as the person who came to their aid against Ewell in the woods. Boo is also apparently the man who carried Jem home. The sheriff reports Bob Ewell was discovered dead at the scene of the attack with a knife in his ribs. Atticus assumes Jem killed Ewell in self-defense. Sheriff Tate, however, believes that Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children and tells Atticus that to drag the shy and reserved Boo into the spotlight for his heroism would be “a sin.” To protect Boo, Sheriff Tate suggests the conclusion that Ewell “fell on his knife.” Scout draws a startlingly precocious analogy to an earlier lesson from the film (hence its title) when she likens any public outing of Boo to the killing of a mockingbird. The film ends with Scout considering events from Boo’s point of view, and Atticus watching over the unconscious Jem.
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