On trial: the courtroom drama

With jury exemptions running at 66 per cent, could public screenings of Twelve Angry Men be the answer? At a season of classic legal dramas at the National Film Theatre, prominent lawyers will look at the way law movies influence our perception of justice
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In the past 50 years the law has proved fertile ground for film-makers. Now the National Film Theatre, in the first season of its kind, is to show some of the best and get lawyers to talk about their favourites. The screenings begin next month, in the same week as the Human Rights Act is implemented, and will feature such classics as Twelve Angry Men and Inherit the Wind as well as The Trials of Oz and Rumpole of the Bailey.

In the past 50 years the law has proved fertile ground for film-makers. Now the National Film Theatre, in the first season of its kind, is to show some of the best and get lawyers to talk about their favourites. The screenings begin next month, in the same week as the Human Rights Act is implemented, and will feature such classics as Twelve Angry Men and Inherit the Wind as well as The Trials of Oz and Rumpole of the Bailey.

Barristers, including the author John Mortimer QC, Helena Kennedy QC and Geoffrey Robertson QC, will explain how they have been affected by some of these films.

For Robertson and Mortimer the experience will be that much more immediate as each had real roles in the Oz trial of 1970 which challenged the basis of Britain's censorship laws. The 1991 BBC TV version of the drama, Trials of Oz, was written by Robertson and has Simon Callow playing John Mortimer as the senior counsel. Robertson is also connected with another film in the series, The Hurricane, directed by Norman Jewison, in which Denzel Washington plays Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, whose life was destroyed when he was wrongly jailed for killing three people in a New Jersey bar. Robertson worked on Carter's defence.

Robertson is head of Doughty Street chambers, which is sponsoring the event, "Court on Screen", and many of its other barristers have been called upon to introduce the films.

Edward Fitzgerald QC, who helped win a posthumous pardon for Derek Bentley, who was hanged for the murder of a policeman in 1952, is expected to open one of the screenings of Peter Medak's Let Him Have It. John Mortimer will also talk about one of the law's most enduring creations, Rumpole of the Bailey, after a showing of Leo McKern's first outing in the title role in a BBC Play for Today.

The National Film Theatre (NFT) believes this is the first time it has screened a season of films exclusively about the law. The NFT's Brian Robinson says a structured presentation highlighting the relationship between the workings of the law and the way it is presented on screen is long overdue. "There is an unquenchable thirst for things legal and the administration of justice or in fact the administration of injustice," he says.

Robertson, who is credited as the driving force behind the project,adds: "The adversary system of trial in England and especially America provides the visual media with a rich source of combat drama and the selections highlight the courtroom's potential for high tragedy and low comedy."

He says the season, which begins on 4 October with Albert Finney's The Biko Inquest, "invites contemplation of cinematic portrayals of lawyers and their trials from a wider perspective thanjust entertainment".

A recent US study of the impact on the public of televising the OJ Simpson trial suggests that this led to a remarkable drop in the number of claims of exemptions from jury service.

In this country jury exemptions are running at 66 per cent. If the Government is serious about getting more people to do jury service it could start by showing Twelve Angry Men at court houses across the country. Who could fail to be drawn to public service after listening to Henry Fonda's laconic arguments turning his fellow jurors one way and then the next?

Mr Robertson argues that films like these can also have a direct impact on the justice system. "I vividly remember how conviction rates at the Old Bailey plummeted during the first series of Rumpole," he says.

And certainly there must be many among the senior ranks of the City law firms, once idealistic, young lawyers who ran off to law school after watching films such as Inherit the Wind.

In this Stanley Kramer classic, Spencer Tracey plays a lawyer who exposes the religious prejudice and ignorance of asmall American town refusing to accept the idea that human beings could be descended from apes.

Spencer Tracey stars again in another of Kramer's weighty films about the law, Judgement at Nuremberg, introduced by Doughty Street's Sir Louis Blom-Cooper. Montgomery Clift won a fourth Oscar nomination for his heart-rending performance as Rudolf Peterson, a victim of the Nazi sterilisation programme. This film has poignance and relevance today given the political struggle to get international agreement for the establishment of a War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The law can also be a rich source of material for comic acting. In Hancock's Half Hour: Twelve Angry Men, on 25 October, Tony Hancock is at his comic best and most irritating as he battles against a hung jury. Peter Sellers was also, arguably, at the peak of his comedy talents in Dock Brief, John Mortimer's forerunner to Rumpole.

The NFT selection is by no means an exhaustive list of the best or most popular films about the law. It's a shame, for example, that there's no room for Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons which set Thomas More against king and country as he fought to uphold the Christian and secular rule of law.

John Grisham fans will also be disappointed as none of the films of his books, such as The Firm or The Pelican Brief, have found a place in the NFT season. Neither is there room for the detective lawyer Petrocelli or the surreal Ally McBeal - which have educated two different generations on the workings of American law.

Mr Robertson says he has "yet to meet a non-lawyer who has not been misled by American movies into believing that English judges wield gavels". He adds: "It is time, surely, for critical studies of the media's impact on justice and some analysis of the film-maker's duty to fairness and historical truth when telling, in just two hours, a case which might have lasted for years."

One film that came close to achieving this is A Civil Action, with John Travolta playing the unconventional lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, who helped eight families settle cases against the American biochemical industry.

However, Mr Schlichtmann believes that the film didn't really do him justice in its portrayal of him as a profit-motivated lawyer. Last year, he told The Independent: "If I was a money-grubbing, shallow guy, why would I take on a case like this in the first place? That's a part of the film that rings a little false. I don't think the characters that the film shows would ever have been interested in this type of case."

As long as news cameras remain outside the courtroom in this country, films about the law will always be in demand. For the same reason, the film-makers will always be able to lend a certain cinematic licence because the public does not know what really happens in court. This is one of the issues which will feature in a specially organised debate to be held at the NFT on 9 October in which Helena Kennedy QC, Geoffrey Robertson QC and John Mortimer will all take part.

Mr Robertson, who helped choose the films for "Court on Screen", says he also wants to examine the "curiosity of the epic public enquiries into arms to Iraq and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, played by actors on stage and on the BBC, instead of permitting accurate and contemporaneous TV coverage".