They don’t make TV movies like this anymore. Hell, they don’t make many TV movies at all, but these days few outside certain cable outlets would make a movie featuring a 12-minute scene containing nothing but lawyers arguing before the Supreme Court (and justices arguing back)—no background music, no flashy camera work or bizarre editing, nothing but impassioned oratory and incredible acting.
Gideon’s Trumpet, an excellent made-for-TV movie from 1980 that finally comes to DVD via Acorn Media, stars Henry Fonda as an elderly fellow who becomes a victim of both circumstance and shoddy law enforcement: he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when the court refuses to appoint an attorney, Fonda stumbles through the trial in an attempt to defend himself. He’s a man of average intelligence, without any real idea of how to conduct himself in a court of law, and watching scene after scene of his awkward cross-examinations becomes heartbreaking. Fonda was the king of the “everyman,” able to elicit sympathy just by being there, shoulders hunched a bit, hands in his pockets, shifting his confused and humiliated gaze from the judge to the witness. It’s no surprise that he’s found guilty, but it is surprising that he’s given the maximum sentence—five years in the state pen.
The crime? Breaking into a pool hall to steal $25, some beer, some wine, and some Coca-Cola from a pool hall. Granted, the film takes place in the early 1960s, so $25 was a fair chunk of change, but is it worth five years in prison? Well, maybe it is—one of the nice things about Gideon’s Trumpet is its unwillingness to pull punches. Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon is not a bad person, but the film is very effective at painting his flaws as well as his heroism: he’s a drifter who’s been jailed four previous times for petty crimes. The judge’s stiff sentence serves to teach him a lesson, and while Gideon admits to the previous crimes, he’s outraged when the state convicts him of this theft.
While in prison, Gideon spends much of his time at the library teaching himself about the law. When he realizes he’s been unfairly—and illegally—treated by the state of Florida, he writes an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. How the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case feels a little simplified, on par with Schoolhouse Rock, but Gideon’s Trumpet is based on fact so the bottom line is, the Supreme Court got word of Gideon’s request for appeal.
A few justices’ opinions haven’t changed since a decision made 20 years earlier, Betts v. Brady, which ruled that courts are not required to appoint defense attorneys unless the defendant has “special circumstances” (illiteracy, race discrimination, mental problems, etc.). An unfair decision that doesn’t take into account the complexity of the law and the simple inability of men of “average intelligence” to properly defend themselves, many states had already rectified the decision in the intervening 20 years. Florida was not one of them. The Supreme Court sees this as an opportunity to overturn the decision at a federal level and, despite a few disagreeable justices, agrees to rehear the case.
After hearing the arguments from both sides, the Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of Gideon—but like many others, he’s not off the hook right away. They’ll retry him with a lawyer, and if he’s found guilty a second time, that’s it. Gideon stubbornly argues that this is double jeopardy, not understanding that it qualifies as part of the appeals process. While an ACLU rep and lawyer try to explain this to him, Gideon flies off the handle and sends both of them away, insisting on being represented by local attorney Fred Turner (Lane Smith, from V and Lois & Clark, who blends a shabby Lionel Hutz appearance with Darrow-like passion). The film is bookended by the two trials: the first showing Gideon’s tragic incompetence, the second allowing Turner to easily poke holes into witness statements and circumstantial evidence, which not only reveal Gideon’s innocence—but the guilt of the key witness.
Aside from Fonda and Smith, the film is a veritable who’s-who of “Hey! It’s that guy”-type stars: John Houseman from The Paper Chase (who served as executive producer of this film) as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, José Ferrer (The Caine Mutiny, Cyrano de Bergerac), Fay Wray (King Kong), Sam Jaffe (The Asphalt Jungle), and dozens of veteran character actors like Dolph Sweet (best known as the chief from Gimme a Break!) and Gary Grubbs (most recently on The O.C.). The pseudo-vérité style the film sometimes employs succeeds despite the plethora of recognizable actors—they manage to blend in and, through the strength of their performances, lend more realism to the story.
Anybody looking for a dramatization of a landmark case we now take for granted—our right to a public defender—will find an exceptional story in Gideon’s Trumpet.