Here at Courtroom View Network we spend all day watching real-world courtroom video featuring some of the best civil trial attorneys in the country. For a lighthearted, late summer change of pace, we decided to take a break from that and rank our all time favorite fictional courtroom scenes from the silver screen.
Some of these picks are old favorites (yes, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is on the list) but we also throw in a few “deep cuts” and a little behind-the-scenes info you may not have known about. Some scenes are admittedly a little less realistic than others, but they all make for some classic moments.
Try sharing these with your friends and colleagues to see which fictional courtroom scenes we might have missed, and when you’re ready to switch back to video from real courtrooms, become a CVN Video Library subscriber with access to hundreds of gavel-to-gavel civil jury trials for just $99/month with no contract.
1.) Inherit the Wind - 1999 (remake)
The Scopes Monkey Trial obviously holds a special place in our hearts here at CVN, being the first trial in the United States broadcast live over the radio.
The original 1960 version of this classic starring Spencer Tracy often appears on similar lists, and rightly so, but the overlooked 1999 remake with Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott (who both passed away shortly afterwards) holds up on its own.
Lemmon plays Henry Drummond, a fictionalized version of legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow. Scott portrays Matthew Harrison Brady, a fictionalized version of Willam Jennings Bryan. Notably in the 1996 Broadway version, Scott played the role of Drummond.
2.) Anatomy of a Murder - 1959
After seeing George C. Scott in a courtroom scene at the very end of his career, here he is 40 years earlier at the beginning, across from opposing counsel Jimmy Stewart.
The original best-selling novel was written under a pseudonym by John D. Voelker, a justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. The film started a movie tradition of interesting cameos on the bench in courtroom scenes - the judge is played by actual attorney Joseph Welch, an active participant in the McCarthy Hearings.
3.) The People vs. Larry Flynt - 1996
Yep, that's the real Larry Flynt playing former Ohio judge William J. Morrissey, who presided over Flynt's criminal obscenity trial in the early 1980's. And no, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you, that's actually Democratic strategist James Carville, still with some hair, playing the prosecutor.
4.) Bananas - 1971
In this Woody Allen classic we find Fielding Melish, a nebbishy New Yorker who accidentally becomes president of a small fictional South American county, on trial for fraud.
The scene features memorable testimony from "J. Edgar Hoover" and in a prescient preview of future courts increasingly adopting alternative sentencing, all charges are dropped on the condition Melish doesn't move into the judge's neighborhood.
5.) Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - 1991
On their final mission before retirement, Captain Kirk and Doctor McCoy find themselves wrongfully accused of murdering the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council.
The judge in this scene is played by the actor Robert Eastman, who worked for decades as a famed Hollywood dialect coach, becoming known as “The Man of a Thousand Voices” for his mastery of various English accents.
And for you Trek nerds, if Kirk and McCoy’s defense attorney seems familiar, it’s because he’s played by actor Michael Dorn who also portrayed Worf in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” - with most fans considering the character in the movie to be Worf’s grandfather.
6.) My Cousin Vinny - 1992
Believe it or not, this is one of the most realistic courtroom movies out there in terms of actual courtroom procedure. Strip away the comic performance, and the actual attorney arguments aren't (that) different from what you'd find at a real trial.
On the bench is of course Fred Gwynne, known for playing Herman Munster, as Judge Chamberlain Haller. It’s arguably the greatest courtroom movie of all time, and practically every scene is a classic, but watching Vinny and Judge Haller debate the pronunciation of “youths” will never, ever get old.
7.) Amistad - 1997
Sir Anthony Hopkins portrays John Quincy Adams arguing before the United States Supreme Court in the famous 1841 "freedom suit" of United States v. The Amistad Africans, 40 U.S. (15 Pet.) 518 (1841). Adams, who won the case for his clients, was at the time of the oral arguments both a former President of the United States and current member of the House of Representatives.
If the courtroom seems unusually cramped, it’s because for many years the Supreme Court was housed in a small space on the ground floor of the United States Capitol. The court didn’t move to it’s current column-flanked home until 1935.
8.) Oh, God! - 1997
When little Nathan Birnbaum, aka George Burns, was born in New York City in 1896, his parents could never have thought that 81 years later he’d be playing no smaller a role than The Almighty on the big screen.
In this 70’s classic, George Burns appears as God to Jerry Sanders (played by John Denver!), an assistant grocery store manager, and urges him to accuse a local preacher of being a phony.
When the preacher sues for slander, God appears at the trial and is sworn in as witness, concluding the oath with “So help me…me.”
9.) A Few Good Men - 1992
You can't make a list of awesome courtroom scenes without including this one, because if you don't then everyone will ask, "What about the scene from 'A Few Good Men' with Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson?"
So here it is.
10.) To Kill A Mockingbird - 1962
Gregory Peck gives a seminal performance as Atticus Finch, arguably the most famous fictional lawyer in American history. This dramatic scene from closing arguments, with Finch begging the jury to do their duty, has likely been the inspiration for countless future attorneys to go to law school.
E-mail David Siegel at firstname.lastname@example.org