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This is a movie made great by Henry Fonda's compelling portrayal of an unlikely folk hero,Clarence Earl Gideon, who was the catalyst for one of the most significant changes in our legal system. The seminal case of Gideon v. Wainright ultimately saw the United States Supreme Court establish that anyone who is charged with a crime is entitled to legal representation by an attorney.
Clarence Earl Gideon was no angel. He was a four time loser, who had been arrested for the burglary of a pool room. He did, however, maintain that he was innocent in this instance and demanded a trial, as he had no intention of pleading guilty for a crime that he did not commit. When Gideon, a semi illiterate, poorly educated man, requested an attorney to represent him at the trial, his request was denied, the presiding judge being of the mind that Gideon was able to represent himself. Gideon did not have a clue and, consequently, was convicted and sentenced to a five year prison term.
Gideon wrote an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which granted his appeal, and its justices set a new precedent with their ruling. His case was remanded to the Florida state court for a retrial. He was appointed an attorney, tried and, ultimately, acquitted of all charges, deservedly so, based upon the evidentiary weakness of the case against him. Justice delayed, however, is, as always, justice denied, as Gideon ended up serving two years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, before he was finally freed.
This is a terrific film with wonderful performances by the entire cast. Henry Fonda is superlative as the stalwart Gideon, whose innate sense of fair play and faith in the United States Constitution helped shape the legal system that we know today. This is a film well worth watching.
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on September 6, 1999
Henry Fonda at seventy four, but he glues together what you may not guess is a T.V. movie with the acting skills of a consumate professional. He plays an ageing semi-literate who just happens to be in the wrong place when a shop break-in and robbery occurs. The actual culprit names Fonda, who with a track record of petty crime is found guilty himself. He had fallen to the mercy of a ruling, made twenty years earlier, that those accused of "non serious" crime did not require the representation of a lawyer, and he was ofcourse in no financial position to hire one. Based on a true story, it tells, in a slow-paced but nonetheless fascinating fashion, how Clarence Earl Gideon(Fonda) studies the law books in his prison library over a two year period , culminating in a letter of appeal to the High Court being taken on by a high-profile lawyer (Jose Ferrer in a strong performance) who succeeds in overturning this ruling, and subsequently in a re-trial Gideon is found innocent. Henry Fonda is quiet, reserved, and as amazingly natural and superb as ever. Its also nice to see Fay Wray in a small role as his landlady. A wonderful production!
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on July 18, 2014
I taught US Government and Civics for many years to high school seniors. I used this book and this movie to demonstrate trial rights of the accused. The movie is entertaining, riveting and teaches the lessons all very well. Surprisingly, the movie follows the book quite well given the need to shorten things for movie time.
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on November 13, 1999
The movie, "Gideon's Trumpet" was incredible. It copied the court case Gideon vs Wainright almost word for word. The actors did a wonderful job of protraying the characters and as a whole the movie was quite educational. This movie proved that education can get a person anywhere they want to go. Clarence Earl Gideon was charged for a crime that he did not commit, and he is then sentenced to jail. While on trial, Gideon asked to be represented but the state of Florida denied him of that right. During his time in jail, Gideon researched his case in the jail's library and sent a letter to the supreme court asking for help. The Supreme Court replied and decided to take onthe case. The court ruled in Gideon's favor. The movie proved that an ordinary man such as Clarence Earl Gideon could get help from the Supreme Court. He was by no means extremely intelligent, instead he was just an average man. Gideon made it possible for average people to be noticed and have rights.
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on April 22, 2009
I've seen most of Henry Fonda's films and this ranks among his very best. He has captured the flawed character of Clarence Earl Gideon like no other actor.This seemingly inconsequential individual who changed the course of American jurisprudence through his appeal to the US Supreme Court for legal representation is portrayed by Fonda so convincingly and so assuredly that Fonda and Gideon become indivisible.

One is equally astonished that the High Court gave such consideration to a relatively minor infraction of the law, and in doing so, gave everyone like the obscure,impoverished Gideon the right to council regardless of their station in life.

As has been stated elsewhere, this film is both an entertaining and informative experience. It is a must see for law students and laymen alike.
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on October 9, 2008
I've been teaching Political Science classes at various schools in the South for 24 years and I always try to show this film during my section on civil liberties. In a little over 90 minutes students learn how the right to a lawyer in all cases was established, how important this right is, and they are entertained at the same time. Wonderful acting from Fonda, Houseman, and Fay Wray also appeal to film buffs. I'm glad to be able to get it on DVD as my VHS copies are starting to show their age.
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on April 1, 2013
This based on a true story and it should inspire anyone who watches it. He changed the law so everyone is intitled to a deffense no matter if he can afford it or not. The bottom line, no matter who you are or where you are, your determination will carry you far. It takes time and hard work with a little luck spinkled in and anything can happen, but giving up isn't on the list.
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on May 1, 2014
As a Political Science Major at my Local University, this film is worth watching to understand how legal system can work for a person who believes and trusts in the United States Constitution. I love the superb acting job done by Henry Fonda (Clarence Gideon) and Fay Fray. It is a must see for anyone who is studying Criminal Law.
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on October 30, 2012
Gideon v. Wainwright is the reason why we have court-appointed counsel. 'Nuff said. This is an incredibly important story that needs to be shown to kids in middle and high school when discussing the concept of inequality. It is also a great story because it gets beyond the race-heavy concepts of inequality and discusses the one that matters even more nowadays: SOCIO-ECONOMIC STATUS. Being poor is the source of much adversity and inequality. Exposing children to this concept via this movie is unbelievably important. Along with it, I'd suggest using this website: [...] There are some great activities there to facilitate this process.
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on April 13, 2014
I teach two law courses in high school and community college: one is an introduction to criminal law, and the other an introduction to civil law. This depiction of the Gideon decision leaves out details that a viewer would find interesting. I believe this is because the run time of the film would have become unacceptable...or perhaps the producers wanted to make Gideon to be an everyman's hero.

The real life Clarence Earl Gideon was not the likeable fellow as portrayed by Henry Fonda. However, this does not detract from the impact of the film. The basic story, that of a man wronged by the legal system, stands on its own. Some names are changed (for example, Lester Wade's real name is Henry Cook), and some testimony is left out. I suppose to include everything was not possible.

However, key parts of testimony in court and argument before the Supreme Court are put on display for the viewer. The film uses parts of actual testimony from all court proceedings. I consider this a strength of the film. You literally hear the true words spoken by the participants at certain points of this film.

What makes the film have an even greater impact is the cast. Henry Fonda, John Houseman, Sam Jaffe (one of his last roles), Jose Ferrer, Fay Wray (her last role!), Lane Smith...all do a fine job. In my opinion, it is one of Fonda's finest performances. It is a pity that the Supreme Court justices were not using names, but a bit of research would allow one to figure out the majors players that shaped the decision.

High school teachers---your students will enjoy this film. I have used this film for the past eight years, and it never fails to make an impact or foster discussion and talking points in the classroom. Discussion, debate, and writing all flow naturally from this film, and the more curious among them often want to know more about the true life characters. I've had students act with surprise at what happens to Abe Fortas later in life.

I suggest reading the book Gideon's Trumpet by Anthony Lewis if one has a chance to do so. As the New York Times Supreme Court reporter for years, he gives insights that the average person simply does not know.

Enjoy this film. I know I did.
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