Trial film

Trial films is a film genre, also commonly referred to as courtroom drama.[1]

The American Bar Association's list

In 1989, the American Bar Association rated the twelve best trial films of all time, and provided a detailed and reasoned legal evaluation for its choices.[2] 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 Journal list are here:

Title Release Year Notes
12 Angry Men 1957 Nominated for 3 Academy Awards. (AFI)
A Man for All Seasons 1966 Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, winning 6. (AFI)[3] 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 1957 Based on a real trial (court martial).
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)
The Verdict 1982 Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. (AFI)

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

The American Bar Association also published a list of the 12 best trial plays, noting that the transition from film to the stage is sometimes difficult. It also has an extensive honorable mention list.[4]


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.[2]

Outside of the first few minutes of the film, 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.[2]

American Film Institute

In 2008, the American Film Institute 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.[1]

Military trial films

Military trial films 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:

Title Release Year Description
The Caine Mutiny[5] 1954 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.[6] The movie 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. 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
King and Country 1964 Directed by Joseph Losey. In the trenches in France during World War I, British captain Dirk Bogarde has to defend shell-shocked private Tom Courtenay, who is charged with desertion.
Breaker Morant 1980 A court martial of Australian soldiers (nominated for an Academy Award), including Harry Breaker Morant by their British commanders in the aftermath of the Boer War in South Africa. Breaker 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. 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.[7]
A Few Good Men 1992 Released after the ABA's list was compiled, contains the famous "You can't handle the truth" exchange.[8] The film was adapted from the Broadway play written by Aaron Sorkin, and acted by Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson.
Rules of Engagement 2000 Marine Colonel Terry Childers, played by 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 An Indian film directed by Samar Khan starring Rahul Bose and Kay Kay Menon in lead roles. The film is based on the backdrop of Kashmir conflict.
Melvilasom 2011 An Indian 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.

Religious trial films

Other films


Further reading

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