Trial films is a subgenre of the legal/courtroom drama that encompasses films that are centered on a civil or criminal trial, typically a trial by jury.
The "trial" genre differs from the broader "courtroom drama" in that the latter includes any film in which a justice system plays an integral role in the film's narrative, and thus does not necessarily require the inclusion of a legal trial.
In 1989, the American Bar Association rated the 12 best trial films of all time in their ABA Journal, providing a detailed and reasoned legal evaluation for its choices. Ten of the films are in English; M (1931) is in German and The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a French silent film. Moreover, ten of them take place (at least, in part) in a courtroom.
In 2008, the American Film Institute compiled its own "courtroom drama" top-ten list, five films of which were also on the ABA list.
The ABA also published a list of the 12 best trial stageplays, noting that the transition from film to the stage is sometimes difficult. It also has an extensive honorable mention list.
|Title||Release year||Top ten list||Notes|
|12 Angry Men||1957||American Bar Association (ABA);
American Film Institute (AFI)
|Nominated for 3 Academy Awards.|
|A Cry in the Dark||1988||AFI||Nominated for an Academy Award, based on a real trial.|
|A Few Good Men||1992||AFI||Court-martial|
|A Man for All Seasons||1966||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 6. Based on a real trial.|
|In Cold Blood||1967||AFI||Nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Based on a real trial.|
|Anatomy of a Murder||1959||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 7 Academy Awards. Based on a real trial.|
|Inherit the Wind||1960||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 4 Academy Awards. Based on a real trial.|
|Judgment at Nuremberg||1961||ABA||Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning 2. Based on a real trial.|
|Kramer vs. Kramer||1979||AFI||Nominated for 9 Academy Awards, winning 5 of them.|
|Paths of Glory||1957||ABA||Based on a real court-martial.|
|The Passion of Joan of Arc||1928||ABA||Based on a real trial.|
|The Wrong Man||1957||ABA||Based on a real trial.|
|To Kill a Mockingbird||1962||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 3.|
|The Verdict||1982||ABA and AFI||Nominated for 5 Academy Awards.|
|Witness for the Prosecution||1957||AFI||Nominated for 6 Academy Awards.|
Outside of the first few minutes of the film, 12 Angry Men (1957) never enters a courtroom at all. It views the particular case and the system of justice through the prism of jury 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.
The trial in M (1931) does not take place in a legal courtroom; rather, crime syndicate leaders along with the city's underground 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." 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.
While courtroom films are typically dramas, My Cousin Vinny (1992) is a comedy centered on a trial in Alabama. It resulted in Marisa Tomei winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
The military trial film is a subtype of the trial genre that focuses on military trials (i.e., courts-martial).
They 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||climaxes in a strongly contested court martial, and a particularly dynamic cross-examination, in which Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) acts out one of film's most dramatic meltdowns. The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards.|
|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. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring 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.|
|King and Country||1964||In the trenches in France during World War I, a British captain (Dirk Bogarde) has to defend a shell-shocked private (Tom Courtenay), who is charged with desertion. The film was directed by Joseph Losey.|
|Breaker Morant||1980||a court martial of Australian soldiers, including Harry 'Breaker' Morant, by their British commanders in the aftermath of the Boer War in South Africa. The film details the tribulations of the defense counsel and the defendants, as they try to throw a wrench into the administrative gears of Morant's court martial. 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. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.|
|A Few Good Men||1992||released after the ABA's list was compiled, the film contains the famous "You can't handle the truth" exchange. The film was adapted from a Broadway play written by Aaron Sorkin (who also wrote the screenplay), and acted by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.|
|Rules of Engagement||2000||Marine Colonel Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) is brought to court-martial on charges of disobeying the rules of engagement in a military incident at an American embassy in Yemen, with flashbacks to Vietnam.|
|Shaurya||2008||a Hindi-language film based on the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict, and directed by Samar Khan starring Rahul Bose and Kay Kay Menon in lead roles.|
|Melvilasom||2011||a Malayalam-language film based on Soorya Krishna Moorthy's stage play of the same name, which itself was based on the play Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak.|
|American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally||2021||It is based on the life of Mildred Gillars, an American singer and actor who during World War II broadcast Nazi propaganda to US troops and their families back home.|
For a more comprehensive list, see List of trial films.
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