Court cases that made it onto the Silver Screen

The twists and turns of the courtroom, lies exposed, evidence brought to light – everyone loves a legal drama. And knowing that the court case on-screen is based on a true story gives an extra dimension to your viewing experience.

Read on for a list of court cases that made it onto the Silver Screen. Each of these classic films were inspired by real events.

Philadelphia (1993)

Many people know that Philadelphia is based on a true story, but most assume that the real events centered around Tom Hanks’ character, when his lawyer is the main historical figure.

In the film, successful and well-liked lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is fired from his conservative law firm when his colleagues learn that he is suffering from AIDS. Beckett sues his former law firm for unfair dismissal with the help of small-time lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Although Miller is homophobic at first, and reluctant to take the case, eventually he overcomes his prejudices and forms a close friendship with Beckett as they fight against discrimination.

Spoiler alert!
Although Miller wins the case, by this time, Beckett is on his deathbed. He simply reacts with a peaceful smile when Miller tells him the news.

Philadelphia is based on a true story, though there is some ambiguity as to whether the film is ‘inspired in part’ or in full by real events. The attorneys Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence B. Cain were among the first people to sue their employers for AIDS discrimination (1987 and 1990 respectfully). Bowers’ family later sued the writers and producers of Philadelphia, seeking compensation for what they saw as their own interview material being used on-screen.

A Few Good Men (1992)

At Guantanamo Bay (‘Gitmo’) Marine Base, Cuba, a private is attacked by two other marines and dies as a result. An investigation is conducted by Lt. Commander Jo Galloway (Demi Moore) and she comes to the conclusion that the marines acted on ‘Code Red’ orders given to them by Colonel Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson). A Code Red is a euphemism for violent extra-judicial punishment.

Galloway believes in truth and justice at any cost, and wants to defend the two marines against their murder charges, but her superior denies her request and instead assigns Lt. Dan Kaffee (Tom Cruise), a lightweight Naval lawyer known for ‘taking the path of least resistance’; in other words, preferring to plea his cases out than to defend in court. But Galloway warns him that if he pleads the case out, Jessup will get away with murder. With Galloway as his co-counsel, Kaffee decides to defend the marines in court.

Spoiler alert!
In court, Jessup is caught out by his own lies, and utters the famous line ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ He is arrested and the two marines are found not guilty, though each is sent from the army with a dishonorable discharge.

A Few Good Men was based on Aaron Sorkin’s 1989 play of the same name; the play was inspired by real life events which took place at Guantanamo Bay in July 1986, though some details were altered. Seven members of Rifle Security Company, Windward Side, 2nd Platoon accepted dishonorable discharges for attacking, blindfolding, shaving and stuffing a rag into the mouth of Pfc. William Alvarado, following ‘Code Red’ orders. Alvarado was injured but survived. Three others refused to accept the plea bargain and went to court, where they were found not guilty of aggravated battery, but guilty for simple assault.

One of the three was David Cox, who was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1989. His lawyer, David Iglesias, became one of the eight United States Attorneys to be dismissed by the George W. Bush Administration.

Legal dramas seem to create legal dramas of their own – as with Philadelphia, the makers of A Few Good Men found themselves in hot water over questions of historical accuracy. Offended that the on-screen marines were given dishonorable discharges, David Cox debated suing the filmmakers.

The Wrong Man (1956)

This film sees Alfred Hitchcock explore one of his biggest fears, one that crops up over and over in his work: mistaken identity. Released in 1956, The Wrong Man is Hitchcock’s second attempt at a courtroom drama, after receiving tepid reviews for The Paradine Case in 1949.

‘For the first time Alfred Hitchcock goes to real life for his thrills! It’s all true and all suspense’ declares the film poster. Unusual for Hitchcock, the film is indeed based on genuine events, without many changes; a fact that Hitchcock himself announces at the start of the film in one of his signature cameo appearances.

The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson and the article ‘A case of identity’ in the June 1953 edition of Life magazine both relate the true events which led to the innocent man’s trial.

In the film, Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) is a low-paid nightclub musician in New York. When his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), requires urgent dental surgery, Balestrero visits his local insurance office. Whilst there, Balestrero is mistaken for an armed robber who has held up the premises twice before. Balestrero is arrested and witnesses identify him as the suspect. A series of mistakes and unfortunate coincidences bring Balestrero before a court. Meanwhile, the difficult situation sends Rose into a state of depression and she is institutionalized.

Spoiler alert!
Between the trial and re-trial, the real robber is arrested and Balestrero is cleared. He visits his wife to tell her, but she gives no signs of her condition improving. In a textual epilogue, however, we discover that Rose recovered and the family moved to Florida. The real-life Balestrero lived to 88 years old, and his wife to 72.

Vicky is a film enthusiast who works alongside She loves a good courtroom drama as well secretly loving classic musicals too!