Trial movies

Trial movies

Trial movies is a film genre, also commonly referred to as courtroom drama. [ [ American Film Institute, Court Room drama top ten.] ]

The American Bar Association's list

In 1989, the American Bar Association rated the twelve best trial films of all time, and providing a detailed and reasoned legal evaluation for its choices. [ Verone, Patric M. "The 12 Best Trial Movies" from the "ABA Journal". November 1989 reprinted in "Nebraska Law Journal"] ] Ten of them are in English; "M" is in German and "The Passion of Joan of Arc" is a French silent film. The films on the ABA list are here listed in alphabetical order:
* "A Man for All Seasons" (1966): Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 6. (AFI) [Also on the American Film Institute list. [ American Film Institute, Court Room drama top ten.] ] : Based on a real trial.
* "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959): Nominated for 7 Academy Awards.: Based on a real trial. (AFI)
* "Inherit the Wind" (1960): Nominated for 4 Academy Awards.: Based on a real trial.
* "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961): Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 2.:Based on a real trial.
* "M" (1931)
* "Paths of Glory" (1958): Based on a real trial.
* "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928): Based on a real trial.
* "The Trial" (1962)
* "The Wrong Man" (1957): Based on a real trial.
* "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962): Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 3. (AFI)
* "Twelve Angry Men" (1957):Nominated for 3 Academy Awards. (AFI)
* "The Verdict" (1982): Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. (AFI)

Ten of the movies take place (at least in part) in courtrooms.


The trial in "M" is "not" in a legal courtroom. Instead, the city's crime syndicate leaders and underground elements hold proceedings in a warehouse. Despite the lack of legal trappings, "it is one of the most effective trials ever filmed, questioning our notions of justice and revenge, mob rule and order, power and responsibility. Our social orientation is flip-flopped." Wearing long leather coats instead of robes, criminals become judges. The murderer is cast as the victim, while the forces of law and order must rely on luck. Peter Lorre strikingly raises the issue of his culpability due to alleged insanity, and the imposition of ultimate retributive justice is depicted as being unsatisfying for society and the survivors of the murdered victims.

"Twelve Angry Men" never enters a court room at all. It views the particular case and the system of justice through the prism of a jury's deliberations. The film explains practical explications of legal concepts basic to the American system of justice, and their effect on a particular trial and defendant. Those include the presumption of innocence, burden of proof and the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

American Film Institute

The American Film Institute recently compiled its own "courtroom drama" ten best list. It includes five of the films on the ABA list, and adds: "A Cry in the Dark", "A Few Good Men", "In Cold Blood", "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "Witness for the Prosecution". [ [ American Film Institute, Court Room drama top ten.] ]

Other list

The most comprehensive listing of legally-themed movies appears at the The George Washington University Law School movie list: [] .

Military trial films

Other films that have military origins. These typically include conflicting questions of loyalty, command responsibility, ethical rules and rules of engagement, obedience to superior authority, politics and class conflict. War and trials are good foils for one another. The struggles are perennial and engaging. A partial list includes:

* "The Caine Mutiny" (1954), [ From the 1951 Pulitzer Prize winning novel "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk, ISBN 0895774143 ] climaxes in a strongly contested court martial, and a particularly dynamic cross examination, in which Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, acts out one of film's most dramatic meltdowns. [ [ Review noting Captain Queeg cross examination.] ] The movie was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.
* Australian "Breaker Morant" (1980), (nominated for Academy Award), a gripping court martial (really a war crimes trial -- think "My Lai Massacre" and "Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse" for contemporary similes) of Australian soldiers, including Harry Breaker Morant by their British commanders in the aftermath of the Boer War in South Africa. Morant details the trials and tribulations of the defense counsel and the defendants, as they try to throw a wrench into the administrative gears of the Court martial of Breaker Morant. Anticipating the Nuremberg trials and the "defense of superior orders", the soldiers' main defense is that they were doing their duty as they understood it, and following orders and policy from above. Nevertheless, this "Kangaroo court" moves to its inevitable conclusion. As one review notes, it features one of the finest (and most succinct) closing arguments in film. [ [ 'Breaker' Morant, A film review by Christopher Null] ]

* "A Few Good Men" (1992), released after the ABA's list was compiled, contains the famous "You can't handle the truth" exchange. [ [ Excerpt of cross examination in A Few Good Men] .] The film was adapted from the Broadway play written by Aaron Sorkin, and acted by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.

* "Paths of Glory" (1957), black and white depiction of a corrupt World War I French court martial leading to a firing squad, and a futility of war conclusion. Directed by Stanley Kubrick, and starred Kirk Douglas as the failed defense attorney.

* "Town Without Pity" (1961): Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington were nominated for an Academy Award for the theme song, "Town Without Pity", which was sung by Gene Pitney

Other films

* Since courtroom movies are mostly dramas, "My Cousin Vinny", a comedy, resulted in Marisa Tomei winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

* Norman Jewison's "...And Justice for All (film)", nominated for 2 Academy Awards, examines the flawed and human, venal and immoral side of justice, focusing on all too human judges. As Norman Webster wrote: "…"And Justice For All" is a sweeping – and somewhat simple-minded – indictment of the American justice system." The film can be seen from the perspective of Judicial Qualifications Commissions (also known as Judicial Tenure Commissions), which are judicial agencies that are charged with overseeing judicial performance and conduct. From that end of the telescope, the indictment of the courts and judicial system (and the examples) are not so outlandish as might be supposed. [ [ Appollo Guide Review by Norman Webster] ]

* "Amistad" by Stephen Spielberg.

* "The Ox-Bow Incident", unusual in that the trial does not take place in a formal court room.:Nominated for Best Picture Oscar in 1943.

* "Witness for the Prosecution" (1957), a Billy Wilder story, which starred Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. :Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, winning 2.


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