Category Archives: Coming of Age Stories

Walking Around in Someone Else’s Skin: The Classic Film, To Kill A Mockingbird

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Usually considered to have originated with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which was subtitled “A Gothic Story,” Gothic fiction is literature that attempts to combine elements of romance, mystery, and horror — without becoming either too fantastic or too realistic. Initially featuring decaying castles, curses, ghosts or other supernatural creatures and events, madness, murder, and “oft-fainting heroines,” Gothic fiction was hugely popular entertainment.

About a generation after Walpole, Ann Radcliffe introduced the brooding Gothic villain in her novel A Sicilian Romance: a tempestuous, moody, sometimes secretive, and extremely passionate male who usually encounters a heroine that completely upsets his life. Later this type of “villain” would be called the Romantic era’s “Byronic hero.” Radcliffe also introduced more independent heroines to Gothic fiction with her bestselling The Mysteries of Udolpho. Though Radcliffe’s heroines are still pretty helpless and faint far more than anyone I’ve ever encountered, they inspired “gothic feminism” which critics claim the author herself expressed as “female power through pretended and staged weakness.” Further, Radcliffe changed the infant genre of Gothic fiction by introducing the “explained supernatural,” where all the apparently supernatural events, from ghosts and moving furniture to strange knocks and cries in the dark, turn out, eventually, to have perfectly reasonable, natural explanations.

Gothic fiction and its various, evolving components spread into the literature of the Romantic era, appearing in the poetry of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Byron, and Poe. In the Victorian era, Gothic elements were more prominent in fiction, and are found in the work Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Bram Stoker (Dracula), Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), and Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre).

Many of these Victorian authors added strong moral elements to their Gothic fiction, producing novels that questioned everything from man’s relationship with newly developing technologies and medical advances to man’s responsibility for feeding and educating the poor. Gothic literature became more than entertainment to pass the long hours of a dark and rainy night: it explored the meaning of life, morality, social responsibility, and man’s relationship to the Divine.

As Gothic fiction spread to authors in America, especially in the South, it became a sub-genre called Southern Gothic. Authors like Faulkner, Caldwell, McCullers, O’Connor, Capote, and Percy examined family relationships, sexuality, poverty, race, and the Southern myths of an idyllic antebellum past. Southern Gothic is filled with

deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters… ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.

With its particular focus on the South’s history of slavery, Southern Gothic became a vehicle for fierce social critique.

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of both American fiction and Southern Gothic. A coming-of-age story set in the fictional “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama from 1933-1936, during the Great Depression, the novel examines everything from family relationships and mental health to societal responsibilities, poverty, violence, and crime. The 1962 film version, adapted from the novel by Horton Foote, eliminated some of the novel’s childhood adventures to concentrate on the aspects of its storyline that make To Kill a Mockingbird so important to American literature and film: the ugly and intractable racism between whites and blacks, a bigotry and intolerance that still exists over most of the country.

Mary Badham as Scout (forefront) with author Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

The film’s (unseen) narrator looks back on her six-year-old self and on the events that changed her from an innocent to a more mature child. In 1933, Scout (Mary Badham) and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck).

Mary Badham as Scout, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and Phillip Alford as Jem, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Together with a visiting neighbor, Dill (John Megna, modeled after Harper Lee’s lifelong friend Truman Capote, who spent summers next door to the Lees with his aunts), Scout and Jem roam around the neighborhood and create their own adventures.

John Megna as Dill, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

One of their most exciting “games” is scaring each other with stories about the never-seen Boo Radley (Robert Duvall, in his film debut),

Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

who lives just a few doors down and who is rumored to be a crazed, scissors-wielding psychopath, once locked up in the courthouse basement jail.

Paul Fix as Judge Taylor, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Late one night, Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) comes over to request that Atticus serve as the appointed defense counsel for Tom Robinson (Brock Peters),

Gregory Peck as Atticus, and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

a black man who has been accused of brutally beating and raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox).

Collin Wilcox as Mayella Ewell (foreground), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Atticus agrees, but despite his attempts to shield his children from the consequences of his decision to represent a black man in a racially charged crime, Scout and Jem soon become involved in the racial “war” brewing around them.

Collin Wilcox as Mayella, and James Anderson as Bob Ewell (both, foreground), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

In particular, the father of the ostensible rape victim, Bob Ewell (James Anderson) tries several times to intimidate Atticus into quitting the case. When that doesn’t work, Ewell threatens violence against Atticus and his children.

Phillip Alford as Jem, and Mary Badham as Scout, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the children continue to find “gifts” in the hollow of a nearby tree, these gifts and their former adventures pale in significance to the events surrounding the crime concerning Tom Robinson and Mayella Ewell.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

By the time the trial starts, most of the town is divided and angry. Though Atticus warns his children to stay away from the courthouse completely, Jem refuses to be barred from the biggest event in the county, and Scout refuses to be left behind at home if Jem and Dill are going to the courthouse.

Phillip Alford as Jem, Mary Badham as Scout, and John Megna as Dill (L-R, foreground), with William Walker as Reverend Sykes (background, wearing suit and tie) To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Without Atticus’ knowledge or permission, Scout, Jem, and Dill sit in the gallery, in the “Negro section” of the court, and watch the entire trial.

William Windom as District Attorney (L), James Anderson as Bob Ewell (center), and Paul Fix as Judge Taylor (background R), To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Judge Taylor presides as the District Attorney (William Windom, in his film debut) badgers witnesses and makes his opinions about Tom Robinson’s guilt clear. Despite the fact that viewers can have no doubt whatsoever about the jury’s eventual verdict, the courtroom scenes are intensely riveting, especially when Atticus cross-examines Mayella herself.

Gregory Peck as Atticus, To Kill A Mockingbird ©

Though the verdict is not in question, Mayella’s father, angry at the Atticus’ not-so-subtle accusations of incest and child abuse, provokes Atticus repeatedly in an attempt to draw him into a physical confrontation. Then, he decides to provoke Atticus by going after his children.

Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, To Kill a Mockingbird won three Oscars:
Best Actor for Gregory Peck, Best Adapted Screenplay for Horton Foote, and Best Art Direction (set design, Black-and-White).

The film also won Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Drama (Gregory Peck), Best Original Score (Elmer Bernstein), and Best Film for Promoting International Understanding (to director Robert Mulligan).

When released, To Kill a Mockingbird was an overwhelming critical and popular success, earning more than 10 times its budget in 1962. To Kill a Mockingbird has gone on to become a classic, with the film listed 25th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2007 list) [#34 on the 1998 list], and taking the top spot in AFI’s Top 10 Courtroom Dramas. Gregory Peck’s character Atticus Finch reigns as AFI’s 100 Greatest Heroes.

Everyone should see this film, though children under 12 may need to be cautioned about the subject matter and the language as this film deals openly with rape, clearly suggests incest, and uses language appropriate to the time and place of its story.

Be sure to watch the black-and-white version of To Kill a Mockingbird, not the colorized one: those who colorized it obviously completely missed the symbolism behind the story’s being filmed in black-and-white instead of in color. Available for rent ($2.99-3.99 SD/HD) from Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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Filed under Actors, Books, Classic Films, Classics, Coming of Age Stories, Crime Drama, Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Historical Drama, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Rape, Review, Review/No Spoilers, Sexual Abuse, Sexual Violence, Violence

Pierce Brosnan & AMC’s THE SON Shine Hot & Bright

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Cast of AMC’s The Son, L-R, Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, Elizabeth Frances as Prairie Flower, Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, Pierce Brosnan as Elder Eli McCullough, Henry Garrett as Eli’s youngest son Pete, Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, Jess Weixler as Pete’s wife Sally, and David Wilson Barnes as Eli’s eldest son Phineas © AMC

AMC’s newest series The Son is a “creation myth of America” set in the American West in two different time periods, 1849 and 1915, telling the story of Texas family patriarch Eli McCullough. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer, who is also an executive producer of the show, The Son explores America’s violent heritage by examining Texas’ deadly involvement with indigenous peoples and its Mexican neighbors. Though Variety claims The Son is “yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past,” and though the premiere was a bit slow, AMC solved this initial pacing problem by showing the first two episodes in the same night. By the third episode, the series picks up steam and becomes quite an intriguing story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough, and Jacob Lofland as the Young Eli in AMC’s The Son  © AMC

Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche as a young man, is the patriarch of the family in the series. Played by Pierce Brosnan in one of his best roles, he is a cattleman who, for some unknown reason, is determined to discover oil on his land. Is he losing money at the ranching business? Is he bored with cattle? Is he not rich enough? Is he in so much debt that he must lose the entire ranch if he doesn’t diversify? We don’t find that out, but for the first several episodes, the search for oil is a minor part of the story.

Pierce Brosnan as the Elder Eli McCullough on The Son  © AMC

Despite some complaints about Brosnan’s native Irish accent poking through the show’s Texas drawl, and despite Hollywood Reporter’s description of his character as “Pathetic White Boy [Eli’s Comanche name]… grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard,” Brosnan’s Eli McCullough is the most interesting character in The Son.

Jacob Lofland as Young Eli, The Son  © AMC

As a young man in 1849, Eli (Jacob Lofland, one of the shining stars of the series) was kidnapped by the Comanche, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, a serious competitor with Brosnan, in both talent and physical attractiveness).

Zahn McClarnon as Comanche leader Toshaway, The Son  © AMC

Tormented by the males of the tribe as well as by the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances),

Elizabeth Frances as Comanche Prairie Flower, The Son  © AMC

Eli often doubts his ability to survive captivity. The longer he is with the tribe, however, the more he begins to behave like the other young men, and the more he is accepted as part of their group. Eventually, Toshaway may even come to regard Eli as his son.

Pierce Brosnan as Eli McCullough, The Son  © AMC

The scenes of Eli in the past are interwoven are interwoven with those of Eli as a grown man, in 1915. Living on his ranch with his sons Phineas (David Wilson Barnes)

David Wilson Barnes as eldest son Phineas, The Son  © AMC

and Pete (Henry Garrett),

Henry Garrett as youngest son Pete, The Son  © AMC

his daughter-in-law (Pete’s wife) Sally (Jess Weixler),

Jess Weixler as daughter-in-law Sally, The Son  © AMC

and his grandchildren — Charles, Jonas, and Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, who shines in her scenes with Brosnan, with whom she has obvious chemistry) —

Sydney Lucas as granddaughter Jeannie, The Son  © AMC

Eli is at odds with his sons. They want to sell part of the ranch to get the family out of debt, but Eli fears that dividing the ranch will ultimately lead to its complete loss. How the family got into such serious debt in the first place has never been made clear, but perhaps that isn’t as important as it seems it should be.

Carlos Bardem as neighbor Pedro García, The Son  © AMC

The McCulloughs’ nearest neighbors are the Garcías, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and his feisty daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who seems inordinately attracted to the already married Pete McCullough.

Paola Nuñez as Pedro’s daughter Maria, The Son  © AMC

The Garcías have a large family, but the most important members seem to be these two. The García patriarch has some nefarious associations with Mexican bandits who are causing havoc with the white Texas settlers. War seems to be on the horizon.

Comanches in The Son  © AMC

Though the Native Americans and the Mexicans often seem stereotyped, the storyline is still mostly strong. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the story itself: Eli has two sons, for example, but the eldest, Phineas, largely disappears after the initial episodes; the Garcías have a large family, but no one gets near the attention (or screen time) that Pedro and his eldest daughter Maria have.

The worst problem with the series so far is its major production flaw: the music is often so loud that the dialogue is literally inaudible.

Still, The Son is worth watching, and, as the LA Times review notes, it’s engrossing, if only for the strong performances of Brosnan (Eli as a man), Lofland (Eli as a youth), and McClarnon (Toshaway). The strongest and most interesting female characters are Frances (Prairie Flower) and Lucas (granddaughter Jeannie). Also, the chemistry between Brosnan and Sydney Lucas (Jeannie) is delightful.

The Son is rated MA for its violence, which is frequent though not excessively graphic, and it airs Saturdays at 9:00 pm ET. The first two episodes, Son of Texas and The Plum Tree are available for viewing without login on AMC, and all episodes are free for AMC subscribers.

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Filed under Actors, Coming of Age Stories, Historical Drama, Movies/Television, No Spoilers Review, Official Trailers, The Son, Violence, Westerns

It’s Not How You’re Buried That’s Important: 3 Western Coming-of-Age Films

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Cowboy ©

Coming-of-age stories have an important place in art, religion, and philosophy. In Judeo-Christian and other Abrahamic religions, the Bible contains one of the quintessential coming-of-age story: Adam and Eve, innocent and child-like, live in the Garden of Eden until they disobey God by listening to the Serpent, who represents their own temptation, and eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, once this knowledge of good and evil is attained, it can never be forgotten, and those who have matured into from innocent childhood to adulthood are forever changed. Whether the protagonist mourns or welcomes this loss of innocence depends on each individual story, but no matter the tale, the passage from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to knowledge can never be undone.

Shane ©

Western films, usually set during the second half of the 19th century when encroaching civilization and expanding technology began to eliminate any previously idyllic vision of life in the American west, often feature the iconic loner cowboy or gunfighter as their protagonist. Since he himself represents the desolate environment and its harsh life, he has long since lost any innocence he might have had. Instead, it is the other characters who come into contact with the Loner who lose their innocence and “mature.” Sometimes the other characters suffer by loving the Loner since they are “abandoned” by him when he moves on (Will Penney). At other times, the Loner’s actions, violent or not, force other characters to face their own moral bankruptcy (High Plains Drifter) or compels them to abandon their idealized image of themselves (Unforgiven).

The Cowboys ©

In Coming-of-Age Westerns, where fistfights are as brutal as gunfights, violence is a primary antagonist, whether it appears in the form of the environment (deserts, mountains, drought, storms, fires), animals (unbroke broncs, stampeding cattle, rattlesnakes, bears), or fellow humans. The iconic Loner, whether cowboy or gunslinger, is never what he seems to be, though loyalty to him is expected if the character who loses his innocence is to retain his own honor. America’s violent past, whether dealing with environmental or human elements, forces the innocenti to evolve from childhood to adulthood.

Shane (1953), one of the classics of the Western film genre, portrays a woman and her son — concentrating mostly the young son — who mature suddenly and irrevocably because of the Loner-protagonist’s violence. Cowboy (1958) and The Cowboys (1972) both feature naïve protagonists who are themselves forced into a painful “adulthood” when confronted with the harshness of the American West. These three films are classic coming-of-age Westerns.

Cowboy
(1958)

You’re a dreamy idiot,
and that’s the worst kind.
Reece

In one of his best roles, Jack Lemmon stars as hotel clerk Frank Harris, who desperately wants to impress Mexican cattle baron Vidal, father of Maria (Anna Kashfi), the woman Harris loves. After rough-and-tumble, opera-loving Trail Boss Reece (Glenn Ford) appears at the hotel, Harris desperately wants to join the next cattle drive to prove himself worth of respect and to attain Maria’s hand in marriage.

Glenn Ford, Cowboy ©

After a somewhat slow start detailing every aspect of Reece’s character — spoiled, selfish, demanding, gambling, womanizing, hard-drinking, proud — the film picks up after Reece leaves the swank hotel and returns to the trail. Accompanied by Harris, who has now become a partner by investing his savings to purchase a herd after Reece lost his funds gambling, the trail boss treats everyone harshly, but especially the greenhorn Harris.

Jack Lemmon (2nd from L) and Glenn Ford (2nd from R), Cowboy ©

As the cattle drive continues, the uneasy relationship between Reece and Harris — “master” and “pupil” — becomes increasingly contentious and volatile, leading their comrades to worry about which man will survive.

Part coming-of-age story, part homage to the American West’s iconic cowboy, and part ironic morality tale, Cowboy explores a young man’s spiritual and emotional growth along with examining a mentor’s responsibility for his charges.

Based on Frank Harris’ semi-autobiographical novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy, with the screenplay written by uncredited and blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, the film Cowboy is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon and YouTube.

Shane
(1953)

Shane, come back.
Joey

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jack Schaefer, which based its story on the 1892 Johnson County War between Wyoming ranchers and homesteaders, Shane analyzes that historic conflict by telling the story of one man, Joe Starrett (Van Helfin), his family, and his tiny group of neighbors.

Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and Alan Ladd, Shane ©

Starrett works hard to support his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and his young son Joey (Brandon de Wilde), but he’s in conflict with local cattlemen who want Starrett’s small homestead. When a mysterious stranger arrives and helps Starrett ward off violence, he and his family welcome the Loner, Shane (Alan Ladd). Little Joey, who’s entranced by all things related to guns and who’s desperate to learn to shoot, immediately falls in love with Shane, partly because of his gun and partly because of his gunslinger past, which Shane never openly discusses.

Jean Arthur & Alan Ladd, Shane ©

As Joe Starrett’s wife and Shane begin to fall in love, the conflict between the cattlemen and settlers increases, and the brutality escalates. After a hired gun (Jack Palance) arrives, Shane must make a difficult moral decision. In the final tumultuous confrontations, Joey reluctantly learns what violence really does to families, to love, and to boyhood heroes.

Jack Palance (credited as Walter Jack Palance), Shane ©

Ignore Ladd’s dorky fringed-deerskin “suit,” silver-conch holster, and ivory-handled pistols, along with the other anachronistic hairstyles and clothes: put them all down to Hollywood’s typical carelessness with historical fiction. What remains is a powerful story about a man’s inescapable past, and about the importance of love, honor, and loyalty. Shane is a moving tribute to America’s violent and frequently romanticized past.

Though playing a gunfighter, Ladd was uncomfortable with guns, while Palance, playing fellow gunslinger Wilson, was nervous around horses. Shane is available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

The Cowboys
(1972)


It’s not how you’re buried [that’s important]:
it’s how you’re remembered.
Wil Anderson

After gold rush fever causes his hired hands to desert en masse, rancher and cattleman Wil Anderson (John Wayne) is desperate for help. After searching everywhere — even in the local one-room schoolhouse — for cowboys to help him take his herd to market, he begins to despair. The next morning, a group of boys, including Robert Carradine in his film debut, awaits him outside. Though very young, the boys want to be hired on, and are determined to prove themselves.

The Cowboys ©

Desperate, Anderson trains and hires the boys, even turning down some experienced paroled prisoners who request work. Anderson doesn’t mind that they’ve been in prison, but he doesn’t like liars. When Anderson and his boys leave to take the cattle on the two-month trip to market, the only adults on the drive are Anderson and his cook Nightlinger (Roscoe Lee Brown), who “doesn’t trust boys.”

Roscoe Lee Brown, The Cowboys ©

As if the cattle, harsh landscape, and constant exhaustion weren’t challenging enough for everyone involved, a group of outlaws, led by the parolee Long Hair (Bruce Dern), is tracking the group in order to steal the herd and get rich.

Bruce Dern, The Cowboys ©

Some reviewers were critical of what they termed the film’s “implication that boys become men through acts of violence and vengeance,” but The Cowboys delivers a stronger message concerning the importance of loyalty, commitment, and remembrance as the very young boys mature into young men.

Dern had difficulty finding work after The Cowboys was released, due to the final conflict between Dern’s Long Hair and Wayne’s protagonist Wil. Available for rent from $2.99-3.99 from Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube.

My original Top 10 Westerns post 
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk

is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:


We All Have It Coming:
Top 5 Westerns

and


I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns

(originally films #6-10)

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Filed under Actors, Classic Films, Classics, Coming of Age Stories, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Review/No Spoilers, Westerns