For many people, the last time they saw (or read) To Kill a Mockingbird was probably in high school English class. If, as a typical teen, you spent more time passing notes or whispering conversations than paying attention, then the release of the To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack is the perfect time to get reacquainted with the original commentary on race relations in the South.

Filmed in 1962 as the Civil Rights movement was reaching critical mass in the United States, the film brings to life Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about small-town lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and his two children, Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), in the fictional small town of Maycomb, Ala. Just about to start the school year, Scout and her big brother Jem are enjoying the last carefree days of summer—climbing trees, swinging in tires and spying on the town’s most mysterious figure, the reclusive Boo Radley (Robert Duvall).

As the movie opens, Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black farmer accused of raping a white woman. Over the next three years, as Atticus prepares Tom’s defense and builds a solid case for him being wrongfully accused, Scout and Jem face scorn and worse as the town reveals their deeply ingrained racism. Indeed, the casual way these characters drop the N-bomb (including precocious little Scout) is shocking.

The town forms a lynch mob intent on hanging Tom, but the quick-thinking kids, along with their new friend Dill (John Megna), are able to shame the townsfolk into disbanding.

In the end, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary and a closing argument that most likely cinched Peck’s Oscar win, Tom Robinson is convicted and sent to prison. Before Atticus can even get home, however, the farmer tries to escape and is shot to death.

Bob Ewell (James Anderson), the alleged victim’s mean drunk father, gloats over his death but also plots revenge against those who sought to have the black man exonerated or participated in what he perceives as his family’s humiliation. Ewell assaults Atticus in the streets, spitting in his face; he tries to break into the presiding judge’s house; he seeks Tom’s widow and harasses her and her family; and, ultimately, he decides to target Jem and Scout.

Saved from certain death by a mysterious stranger, the children soon realize that Boo Radley has come to their rescue…and not for the first time. Scout, in particular, comes to realize that not everyone is what they seem. Even as her childlike innocence is lost, it is replaced with a newfound sense of honor and the desire to protect Boo from the torture public scrutiny would bring.

This look at life in the Depression-era South, as filmed through the lens of the reactionary ‘60s, holds as much of a punch today as it did 50 years ago—perhaps even more. Viewers of 2011’s The Help should appreciate the volatile times in which this movie was made, and may perhaps gain a more mature appreciation for the story they once slept through in English class.

Originally released on DVD in 2000, then again as a Universal Legacy edition with special bonus features in 2005, this 50th Anniversary set (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, MSRP: $26.98) combines the best of the latter with new material and a crisp restoration of the film on Blu-ray. A movie-only DVD and digital copy complete the set.

The original audio commentary with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula returns, featuring stories from the set and insights into making the film.

Documentary fans should enjoy the oddly named “Fearful Symmetry” (whose title comes from a line in the poem “The Tyger” by William Blake, reportedly one of Lee’s favorites). Originally released in 1998, director Charles Kiselyak (“Building Ground Zero”) tracked down several cast and crew members, including Peck, Alford, Badham and Mulligan, as well as residents of Lee’s hometown of Monroeville (reputed to be the inspiration for Maycomb). The 90-minute feature combines commentary with film clips, talk about the book and personal reflections on the dynamics of the South in the 1930s. Though it could use some editing, there is much information enthusiasts of the movie and historians alike should find fascinating.

Fans of the Oscar-winning actor will swoon over "A Conversation with Gregory Peck," 98 minutes worth of Q&A filmed in front of a live audience. Part of the PBS series “American Masters,” this 1999-aired documentary combines movie clips and video footage with a filmed talk the actor gave at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. His personal stories range from the actor’s early life to embodying the role of Atticus Finch, and are relaxed, introspective and, often, funny.

Completists will enjoy Peck’s Best Actor Academy Award acceptance speech; his AFI Lifetime Achievement tribute; an Academy tribute hosted by Peck’s daughter, Cecilia; and the original theatrical trailer of the movie.

Thirty-seven years after starring as Scout, Badham recollects her first movie-making experience (and working with Peck) on the short-and-sweet “Scout Remembers,” originally aired on NBC in 1999.

The 50th Anniversary collection also contains two brand new features. Film buffs will probably find the featurette on Universal’s efforts to restore early studio releases interesting, but the subject matter can be a tad academic. Finally, there is something called a U-Control feature, where viewers can watch various movie scenes with picture-in-picture commentary by writer Horton Foote, Mary Badham, Robert Mulligan, Cecilia and Anthony Peck and others.

Lastly, for die-hard fans of the beloved movie, a Limited Edition Collector’s Series Combo Pack is also available (MSRP: $39.98), packaged in a hardcover book featuring exclusive movie memorabilia including script pages with Peck’s handwritten notes, storyboards, poster art and more.

To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition is now available on Blu-ray. 

Published on LifeinLA.com

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