As Jack Nicholson famously proclaims in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” Maybe not. Maybe no one can. It must depend on your definition of “the truth,” but whatever that definition may be, it will invariably differ from that which is held by another person. This suggests that it is difficult or unfair to evaluate the actions of many with a single set of standards, however, that is what humanity continues to do, regardless of the sense it fails to make.
I recently spent a day in one of my favourite ways, just watching as many movies as possible. I often have a hard time deciding upon what movie/show I should watch; annoyingly, I have to be in just the “right” mood to watch something – even if it is one of my favourite movies – and the process of trying to select something to put in my DVD player eats up a lot of time. However, on the recent day mentioned above, I managed to watch three movies – a pretty satisfactory amount of one-way media consumption. It was not until the very end of the day that I noticed there was a theme underlying the different things I had watched, a conclusion I came to upon realizing that all three films had also been in black and white.
I began the day with To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). I had never seen this movie before, but I had been wanting to for a while. For some reason, I was under the impression that it would be similar in tone to the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), perhaps because I had heard the titles mentioned together. Turns out, I was wrong; although both films deal seriously with issues of prejudice in America, I found Mockingbird was much weightier in tone. Mockingbird takes place in a small town in Southern America during the Depression, and events in the town, and in the trial of an African-American man – on the charge of rape – are seen through the eyes of the defense attorney’s young children. Although the first half of the movie can seem quite slow, it does a good job of establishing the social context for the trial that spans most of the rest of the film. It is significant, too, that the attorney’s children watch the trial from the literal perspective of the African-American citizens of their town, all of whom watch from the upper level of the courthouse, separate from the Caucasian citizens on the lower level. The ending of the film is a good one – although sad and somewhat unsatisfying – and the conclusion of a secondary story line also parallels the central plot about racial prejudice by addressing prejudice against – or the stigma surrounding – mental illness.
The next film of the day was 12 Angry Men (1957), which I had also never seen before. I thoroughly enjoyed it; I find it fascinating that a movie which takes place largely in one uninteresting, small room could so effectively keep my attention. At the beginning of the movie, the twelve men are revealed to make up the jury for a murder trial of a teenage boy from an inner-city neighbourhood. The men are ushered into a room in which they are to determine the guilt – and fate – of the boy. Initially, eleven of the twelve men are utterly convinced of the boy’s guilt, and quickly vote to send him to the electric chair, but because of one dissenting voice among them, they are forced to talk it through until they can reach a unanimous vote. The men argue loudly and sometimes violently for a long time as they propose their reasoning for which side – guilty or not guilty – they support. Issues of prejudice and motive come up. The initial situation of the one man who dares to disagree with the rest is an extremely unique one; all humans find it challenging to be part of the minority, but when you are the one and only member of the minority “group,” and when the circumstances are moral and of life-and-death significance, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone could withstand the pressure. Therefore – whether or not the movie ends the way you hoped it would – it provides the rare opportunity to observe and imagine such a high-pressure circumstance.
The third movie I watched was Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). Although I had seen this film a couple of times before, it had been a few years and I had forgotten how great the acting was by the entire cast. The movie focuses on a judgment of judges, or a trial of some of the German judges who had carried out trials throughout WWII based on the Nazis’ 1935 Nuremberg laws. Questions of individual morality and responsibility to oneself and/or to one’s governing body are brought up. Ignorance of the consequences that judgments had is questioned as a valid excuse, or even as a realistic possibility. Real footage taken at concentration camps and killing centers make up a couple of minutes of the film. Victims of the Nazi’s program of “sterilization” and of public ridicule based on Nazi ideology give emotional testimonies. The film also demonstrates the precarious political position of the United States at the time, as the leader of several such trials in Germany at the beginning of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union became America’s new primary enemy. It would be an understatement to say that it is a film truly worth watching.
That was how I spent my “judgment day.”
What are your favourite trial movies? What do you like about them?