Learning Lawyering From Film: “Let Him Have It”

Film, Hollywood and otherwise, draws attention to what it means to be a lawyer, both good and bad. Think Atticus Finch, heroically portrayed by Gregory Peck and of such iconic stature that “the American Film Institute deemed Atticus Finch the number one movie hero of all time…” McMillian. A DIALOGUE COMMEMORATING THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD’S PUBLICATION: ATTICUS FINCH-Christian?, 77 Tenn. L. Rev. 739, 748 (Summer, 2010).

But filmed versions of trials, real and imagined, also do much more. As described by Professor Thomas Sullivan:

Just as film audiences may learn from filmmakers, the writers, directors, actors, and cinematographers are able to create art that informs lawyers and other actors in the legal system about how film viewers may perceive them. Of course, it is equally true that filmmakers may create wholly unreal pictures of the legal system and the work of lawyers that distort, rather than inform film viewers of this process. SYMPOSIUM: IMAGINING THE CRIMINAL LAW: WHEN CLIENT AND LAWYER MEET IN THE MOVIES*, 25 U. Ark. Little Rock L. Rev. 665, 668 (Spring, 2003).

And film can break stereotypes and advance equal rights, as did Katherine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib. “By using the courtroom as her stage and the trial as an instrument to expose her ideas and to accomplish change, she obtains an acquittal for her client and educates the public about the law’s inequity to women. She is a creative trial advocate, resorting to unconventional courtroom techniques.” Caplow, STILL IN THE DARK: DISAPPOINTING IMAGES OF WOMEN LAWYERS IN THE MOVIES, 20 Women’s Rights L. Rep. 55, 63 (Spring/Summer 1999).

Beyond portraying model lawyers and the courtroom, some films also teach advocacy skills – what to do or what not to do. An exemplary instance of the former is found in the 1991 British film Let Him Have It. 

The story-line to this compelling retelling of an actual prosecution, one that helped stir the debate leading to the end of capital punishment in England, is simple. Bentley, the protagonist, is a young adult in post World War II England who suffered some degree of brain injury during the Nazi blitz. He becomes a hanger-on with a group of would-be criminals and is convinced to join Craig, a minor, in an attempt to burglarize a building.

Bentley and his companion are on the roof of the building when police arrive, and the minor pulls a gun. As one police officer seeks to calm the situation, Bentley yells “Let him have it, Chris.” Chris Craig then fires, with the result being one officer dead and a second injured. Bentley’s liability is dependent on the meaning of the words – did “let him have it” mean “shoot” or “surrender the gun?”

It is on this point that the film displays and teaches stellar advocacy. The surviving officer, testifying with his arm in a sling, recounts the event on direct as follows:

Q: And what happened next?

A: Bentley shouted, Craig opened fire and I was hit in the shoulder.

Q: And what was it Bentley shouted to cause Craig to fire?

A: He shouted “let him have it Chris.”

Q: And what did you think he meant by that?

A: Shoot, start firing.

 The testifying officer’s mien and voice made clear that he believed the words to be criminal encouragement, and having been nearly killed he was unlikely to relent and agree to the words’ inherent ambiguity. His “lay opinion” had been expressed. So how was cross to proceed with even a chance of conveying the opposite, that Bentley meant “surrender the gun?”

The answer was by using the most delicate, refined and redirecting cross as possible. It went as follows:

Q: Sergeant Fairfax, you were hit in the shoulder and knocked down?

A: Yes sir.

Q: You recovered quickly and grabbed Bentley again?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Now you were wounded and therefore more vulnerable. Despite this, did Bentley make any attempt to attack you?

A: No sir, I attacked him.

Q: And when you took him to the top of the steps, did he again do or say anything violent towards you?

A: No sir.

Q: Sergeant Fairfax, at this stage did you have hold of Bentley?

A: No sir.

Q: So in other words he was free to run and join his friend, if he had so wished, even though you had just cautioned him?

A: Yes, I suppose so.

Q: No further questions.

The film depiction of the Sergeant’s face shows the conflict of emotions, a recognition that perhaps the situation was more ambiguous than he had – or would – concede. But had counsel persevered and asked the infamous and problematic “so” question, “so, he might have meant ‘surrender the gun’” the witness would never have conceded and instead advocated for his beliefs. And it was unnecessary – counsel’s point had been made aptly, simply and clearly.

Yes, the jury did convict Bentley, and his sentence of death was carried out despite much public hue and cry. But the deftness of this cross-examination confirms that sometimes we can and ought to learn from film.