Drama

Gregory Peck’s Show Trial

Gregory Peck is defending Brock Peters (right). Image: The Hollywood Reporter
Gregory Peck defends Brock Peters (right). Image: The Hollywood Reporter

*Spoiler Alert

Starting in 1936, leaders of the Soviet Union commissioned a series of show trials. These were public trials in which alleged enemies of the state were found guilty then executed.

They weren’t real trials, of course. Show trials are not about Justice; they are meant to Send A Message. In a show trial, no amount of evidence will change the predetermined Guilty verdict.

So it is in the case of The People v. Tom Robinson, where a black man is accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Georgia.

You may have heard of this fictional court case. It’s from 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the 1960 novel. The film stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson, the Accused.

(Note: We’re focusing on the trial as presented in the film. Sadly, there’s no time to compare it to the novel.)

We first learn about the alleged assault when lawyer Atticus Finch does, on a summer evening as he sits alone on his front veranda, listening to his children through an upstairs window.

A judge (Paul Fix) unexpectedly drops by and says he’s thinking of appointing Atticus as Robinson’s defence attorney. This is a polite way of giving a direct order, but Atticus Finch doesn’t need to be ordered. He agrees to act as defence counsel.

To Kill a Mockingbird Court Scene 1962
These folks want Tom Robinson to Pay. Image: moviehousememories.com

The trial takes place on a hot summer day, and everyone in town has squeezed into the courtroom to watch Atticus at work. His questioning of witnesses is so thorough, we’re convinced Tom Robinson can’t lose.

Through cross examination, we learn Robinson’s accuser (Collin Wilcox) is a troubled woman. She’s poor, uneducated and married to a violent man. As Atticus questions her, we feel the rage she harbours. We wonder how much of her fury is meant for Robinson vs. the World At Large.

For example, she screams at spectators in the courtroom. “If you ain’t gonna do nothin’ about it, you’re just a bunch of lousy yellow stinkin’ cowards,” she cries.

As for the soft-spoken Robinson, his testimony must be coaxed out of him. He says he passed his accuser’s house daily as he walked to and from the fields where he worked. Then his accuser began asking for his help with her family’s chores. This placed him in a difficult position, made worse when she tried to seduce him.

By condemning Robinson, the accuser has inadvertently condemned the entire town. Atticus Finch makes this clear in his closing arguments.

First, he chides the prosecution for not providing enough evidence of the alleged crime. He then says the trial is actually about “a rigid and time-honoured code of our society. A code so severe that whoever breaks it is hounded from our midst.”

Atticus Finch gives the jury the opportunity to acquit an innocent man, but they pass.

They find Tom Robinson guilty.

There are no accolades for Atticus Finch. Image: Pinterest.
No accolades for Atticus Finch today. Image: Pinterest.

When we hear the verdict, we realize Tom Robinson was never going to be acquitted. There is no defence against a time-honoured code.

Aside from that, Robinson is an unlikely force to be reckoned with, and not in a way anyone expected. In telling his version of events, Robinson says he found it strange there was no one to help his accuser with her chores. Then this:

Robinson: “I felt right sorry for her.”
Prosecutor: “You felt sorry for her? A white woman? You. Felt sorry for her.”

You see, Robinson’s sense of decency has just indicted white society. This makes him an enemy of the state.

Ironically, Robinson is the type of person who could inspire others to change their lives for the better – and he would have, in a real trial. But this wasn’t a real trial.

It was just for show.

To Kill a Mockingbird: starring Gregory Peck, John Megna, Frank Overton. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Written by Horton Foote. Universal-International Films, 1962, B&W, 129 mins.

This post is part of The Classic Courtroom Movies Blogathon hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.

Screen shot 2016-03-06 at 12.45.59 PM

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39 thoughts on “Gregory Peck’s Show Trial

  1. Great piece — many thanks. I’m planning to read Lee’s Go Set a Watchman soonish to get yet another take on the events.

    The sad thing is that I think far too many trials in our modern system are equally just show trials. If you follow sites like CEDP and The Innocence Project you find it’s quite horrific the level of people given heavy sentences as a result of trials every bit as pr-scripted as Tom Robinson’s, and these organizations are barely scraping the surface.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Go Set a Watchman is a book I haven’t yet read… I don’t want anything to change my cherished view of Atticus Finch as Gregory Peck in this film. 😉

      Thanks so much for the sites you referenced. I’ll be looking them up this weekend.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s a tough movie for me to watch. Infuriating… poignant. I love how you laid it out in your essay. “…But this wasn’t a real trial.” Good God girl. You just drop kicked me to my knees!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is a classic movie and one I should have watched long before now. And the sad part is the only thing that has kept me from watching it is I never particularly cared for Gregory Peck. Yes, I reviewed Guns of Navarone earlier this year, which I like, and I absolutely loved Cape Fear (but more for Robert Mitchum than for Peck). Now, admittedly I don’t despise Peck and avoid his movies with a passion like I do Tom Cruise, but there has always been something about a Peck performance that turned me off. (I don’t like High Noon, but people think its one of the tops…) Now I mentioned in another person’s review of The Boys from Brazil that I actually loved his performance in it, although I had to confess I had forgotten it was he who was in the movie. Maybe I just don’t like goody-two-shoes…:-D. OK, I’ll give it a go sometime before the month is out and try to get back to you on it. Long winded reply, but it was a good review, and made a good point about the farce of the trial.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This was splendid!
    Robinson is, indeed, the kind of humble person who can teach a lot to us, even though at first we don’t expect such a thing to happen. Too bad he suffers a huge injustice – in a way, similar to Spencer Tracy in Fury.
    Thanks for your kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I first saw this film soph year in high school and while I was shocked as to how different the novel was (I enjoyed it) the one thing I did love was Gregory Peck- I didn’t know who he was at the time- but I knew I liked him. Watching it today- the film is marvelous in its own right!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree – the film is marvelous in its own right. I recently picked up the novel to re-read, since it’s been years, and I’m curious to see how it aligns (or doesn’t) with the film.

      And Gregory Peck – the perfect choice for Atticus Finch, no?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. TKAM will never get old. I studied this for English in school and it was just so thought provoking. The themes of prejudice and childhood stick with you for life.

    Harper Lee was a great person for writing this book at such a time where things like this where actually happening!

    Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, it’s certainly a lot more southern that Shakespeare!

        In English, we read multiple texts which the teachers feel have depth and you can write an essay on. So I have studied many books, and Shakespeare is my favourite!

        Romeo and Juliet – so moving! But not realistic!

        I fell in love with Atticus 🙂

        I’m a university student now so I don’t study English anymore. But, I have read Go set a watchman – still need to finish it!

        Liked by 1 person

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