The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (1977 film)

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
Written by Robert E. Thompson
Directed by Gordon Davidson
David Greene

John Pleshette

Ben Gazzara
Lorne Greene
Theme music composer Fred Karlin
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
Producer(s) Richard Freed (producer)
Charles W. Fries (executive producer)
Lawrence Schiller (associate producer)
Cinematography Vilis Lapenieks
Editor(s) Allan Jacobs
Running time 210 minutes
Production company(s) Charles Fries Productions
Original network American Broadcasting Company
Original release September 30, 1977 (1977-09-30)

The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a two-part television film shown on ABC-TV in September 1977. The film starred Ben Gazzara, Lorne Greene and John Pleshette in the title role. It is an example of alternative history. The hypothesis is what might have happened if Lee Harvey Oswald had not been killed by Jack Ruby and had stood trial for the murder of President John F. Kennedy.


The film opens sometime in 1964 and Oswald is in a maximum security cage as a radio announcer tells how he has been on trial for the last 43 days as the eyes of the entire world watch. A bailiff announces the jury has reached a verdict and the world press rushes to their phones. Oswald is handcuffed and led back into the courtroom to learn his fate.

The film then flashes back to the day before the Kennedy assassination. Oswald is trying to reconcile with his estranged wife Marina without luck. The next day, a friend drives him to the Texas School Book Depository and he puts a wrapped package in the backseat. The assassination of Kennedy is then reenacted with chilling conviction. Oswald leaves the building and possibly murders police officer J. D. Tippit. Oswald is arrested in a theater and bound over for trial.

Oswald's prosecutor is wily, sarcastic Anson "Kip" Roberts (Gazzara). From the beginning, Roberts is skeptical about a "poor shlub who couldn't even hold a job" assassinating the President. However, a phone call from President Johnson himself makes him realize he had better stick to this hypothesis. In the meantime, bombastic defense attorney Matt Weldon (Greene) is assigned to the defense. He realizes he has a difficult client upon their first meeting when Oswald keeps talking in paranoid fashion about "them" and "they" manipulating the strings. In addition, Weldon has to deal with several cases of possible witnesses for the defense dying under suspicious circumstances.

A change of venue moves the "trial of the century" to a small Texas town. Roberts and Weldon square off before a stern judge who immediately lets them know who is in charge of the courtroom. Weldon conducts a formidable defense in the beginning casting doubt on the testimony of eyewitnesses. He and his investigators interview Oswald's wife and mother and associates to try to obtain a clearer picture of "the man of mystery". However, the picture only grows darker as flashbacks show Oswald defecting to the Soviet Union, returning to the US and in the company of various shady individuals. Oswald stubbornly refuses to cooperate when Weldon urges him to open up and tell the truth, as it might help save him from the electric chair. Although Lee insists on taking the stand in his own defense, he mysteriously refuses to talk when Weldon presses him. Roberts begins his cross examination by asking Oswald why there is a picture of him with a rifle, a palmprint of his on the murder weapon and a money order buying the Mannlicher Carcano which killed Kennedy. Oswald merely says the evidence is faked. The prosecutor applies an unusual method of cross examination by mentioning an argument Oswald and Marina had the night before the assassination when Marina wanted to watch JFK on TV and Lee kept turning the set off over and over. Roberts demands "Isn't that why you decided to kill President John F. Kennedy, because Marina wanted to watch him on TV?" In his only display of emotion during the trial Oswald screams a denial. When Roberts points this out, Oswald responds that any person would react that way if someone pries into their personal lives.

The film then ends as it began with the prisoner being led back into the courtroom. Dallas Police Detective Jim Leavelle made a brief cameo appearance playing himself in this scene. Oswald is then shot and killed by Ruby in an eerie return to reality. It flashes on the screen that the makers of the film cannot provide the role of a jury and the final verdict is ours alone.


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