Some of you responded to this ‘formative movies’ subject with your own titles, everything from Gidget to The Manchurian Candidate, and many more, and I thank you. Three of my fellow screenwriters sent their own essays, and so here I share their thoughts and memories with you. Last week was the first. In this column are the second and third. I have taken liberties and condensed their writings a bit, but you’ll get the picture. (pun)
Charlie Peters: To Kill a Mockingbird 1962
The movie that affected me most was To Kill a Mockingbird. I was ten years old and the year before I saw it for the first time I’d watched my own father die. Naturally, a bit lost and dark (Saturnine, one of my teachers in England called me) Atticus Finch became for me, as he did for many other kids, a father figure. He also had my father’s mid-west tone: handsome, cool, reserved and in charge as most men of that time were.
When I was 30, the director of the film, Robert Mulligan, was directing a not very successful comedy of mine with Sally Field and James Caan called Kiss Me Goodbye. But I got a chance to talk to Mulligan about directing Mockingbird. The script by Horton Foote is, in my opinion, the best screenplay ever written. There is not a single unnecessary word or scene.
Atticus Finch is still a hero of mine. No movie moved me like Mockingbird. There are four scenes that I cry over when I simply remember them. The shooting of the rabid dog and the pride of Atticus’s son. And when in the balcony of the courtroom the black minister says, “Stand up, children, your father is passing.” And even the breakfast scene when Scout mocks her poor little neighbor for smothering his pancakes in syrup, and Atticus chides her for that. It’s a moment that many children have: Scout knows it’s an important moment and that someday she will understand why it moved her. But not then. As I got older I remembered many things my elders said to me because I somehow knew I should remember them. I didn’t know what they meant when I was a boy, but I did when I was older.
John Hill: Red River 1948
The most formative movie in my life was probably Red River (next was Shane). At age 10 or 12 I only knew that these were "cool movies" that somehow meant something to me. Now at my advanced stage of life, I understand the psychological underpinnings of why these movies were metaphors that spoke to me at a deeper level.
In Red River, I saw a totally take-charge, in control figure in John Wayne’s character, (mirroring my macho military father in real life – he quit college to go to England and fly Spitfires in the Battle of Britain.) Wayne’s foster son, Matt, is played by Montgomery Clift, and he’s the one I related to as a boy and teen.
They start an unheard of, first time ever, cattle drive from Texas to Kansas through all the Indians, rustlers, weather, etc. Under the stress and desperation of the drive, the John Wayne character starts being way too obnoxious and wrong – and the son stands up to him! Clift takes over, leaving the vengeful John Wayne behind him who is vowing death and revenge, soon, and we believe him. So the son figure (me in my imagination) takes the cattle successfully to Abilene. The son is a hero, but they all know that John Wayne is coming after them to kill Clift.
Near the end Wayne comes on shooting, but the son won’t draw on him, so an epic public fist-fight ensues! Once the son hits him back, that’s when Walter Brennan, as lifetime friend of the Wayne character, knows that “everything will be all right.” The fight is broken up by the Joann Dru character, shooting near them, and screaming “Stop it! Stop it! Anyone with half a brain knows you both love each other!”
The two men look sheepish, and then Wayne says, “Matt, I think you better marry that girl.” And, in a friendly way, Clift says back “When are you going to stop telling people what to do?” John Wayne’s answer is to draw a new cattle brand there in the dust, his own Red River D, but now adding Matt’s initial, saying “You earned it.”
Meaning, I was wrong and you, son, were right, and now you’re a man.
The movie spoke to me deeply for this reason (movies are often our fantasies made real). How I stood up to my father and what happened is the stuff for too many drinks some night, not here, but I know that is what so warmed me to Red River.