THIS WEEK: To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): A widowed lawyer juggles raising his children in the backwards South, with defending a Black man accused of rape.
Enjoy the moment.
HOW IT STARTS: A rabid dog strolls down the street, towards Atticus and his children.
THE PREFACE: Gregory Peck portrays one of cinema’s best heroes ever, in one of the best movies of all time. He plays Atticus Finch, a widowed lawyer raising his little children in Alabama during the Depression. The story focuses on his young precocious tom-boy daughter, Scout, and how she sees the world. Atticus has already taught her well. She’s reading and writing before her first day of school. Fortunately, his lessons didn’t end there.
Racism was very prevalent during this period of history. Black people were treated as lesser in this community. However, Atticus is outside the norm. He isn’t prejudice, and he’s taught his children to follow in his footsteps. One of his wisest lessons was when he told Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus preaches empathy at a time hopelessly devoid of it.
THE SET-UP: Atticus is a lawyer defending a Black man accused of rape. The whole town is against him. Time after time, he stands up for what’s right. His children witness this and even adopt his stance on the playground. Since we experience this story from Scout’s point of view, we don’t know anything about Atticus’ past. Was he in the War? Was he a hero? Everything we know about his character comes from the lessons he teaches his children.
One summer day, with the children at home, a disoriented rabid dog turns down their street. Atticus rushes in. Another man either can’t make the shot, or doesn’t want to take the animal’s life. He hands his rifle over to Atticus. The children watch from the house, as their father accepts the rifle and prepares himself for what’s next.
Sure, this is a bad-ass hero moment–we have Gregory Peck with a gun. However, this scene isn’t being Remembered because it’s cool. This Moment wants us to wonder if something else is going on under the surface, thematically. Like Atticus says during another moment, “Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand.” This moment may seem like courage to a child, but there’s something more. Let’s dig a little deeper as we Remember this Moment in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.
THAT MOMENT: Atticus takes aim at the rabid dog, removing his glasses. He has to make certain this dog is rabid before he pulls the trigger. He isn’t fast to judge. He patiently observes. Once he’s sure, he kills the dog instantly with one shot. Painless.
I always wondered what this sequence meant. I think the glasses being removed threw me off. As a child, I just kept thinking doesn’t he need to see? When I got a older I realized there’s a few possible interpretations. For example, he could just be near-sighted and need glasses for reading and such.
I think this moment is a visual metaphor. Atticus is anything but near-sighted when it comes to his ethics. For me, this moment parallels with a racist’s view of Black people.
THAT MOMENT REMEMBERED: A vicious looking dog isn’t always rabid, and a Black man isn’t always violent either. Like Atticus’ trial later, a Black man isn’t guilty on sight. Atticus needs evidence before judgement, whereas the racist community doesn’t need to know anything more than skin colour. They think if a Black man is on trial, he must be guilty of something. No one is willing to defend this man, except for Atticus. And no one else is willing to shoot that dog either. By shooting this rabid dog, Atticus accepts the responsibility and does what’s right.
Another way to look at this message is with a pit-bull. A lot of people assume they’re dangerous because of the stories they’ve heard, but not all pit-bulls are savage and dangerous. It depends on a variety of factors. The fact is some pit-bulls are as friendly as a fluffy poodle.
Other interpretations include Atticus removing his glasses to give the dog a fighting chance. I’m thinking he wanted to kill this dog, quick and painless. He doesn’t want to miss or startle the dog even more, urging it to attack someone else (including his children).
Another interpretations is the removal of his glasses symbolizes the peaceful side of Atticus. This option is more intriguing, like he’s Clark Kent or something hiding his Superman identity.
I’d like to think it shows the meager man can be a hero too. Even one’s who can’t keep their glasses atop their head.
Most of all, this moment hearkens back to what Atticus said about never killing a mockingbird (earlier in the film). They don’t steal food or ruin the crops. They just sing. Since there’s no reason to shoot–don’t. With the rabid dog, Atticus waits and makes sure there is a reason. This is something the racist community surrounding him does not do.
The movie’s title and this Moment go hand in hand. If the film was called To Shoot A Rabid Dog, I don’t think it would have the same resonance. That said, I think these moments share the same thematic message for a reason.
After all, this movie says real courage is defending the innocent when everyone else is certain of guilt. The children may have thought that their father was a hero when he saved them from the dog, but once they saw him at trial they saw what a real hero looked like. Without this subtle Moment with the dog, perhaps the trial wouldn’t have been so effective.
David’s Angle: This moment has always intrigued me, too. I’m really glad you decided to write about it. When I was younger, I too thought nothing of it. It’s just a guy shooting a dog to protect his family. But as you point out, there is a lot more going on here. I think the glasses are especially important. It’s a moment that requires consideration. Finch is not impulsive and he is looking carefully not only at the animal, but is actions and its implications. The more times I watch this, more impact this moment has. Well worth watching again.