In his play ''Henry VI, part II,'' William Shakespeare penned the famous words ''First off - Let's kill all the lawyers.''
It's a phrase which has made its way into any number of rude jokes, not to mention onto T-shirts and coffee mugs.
In reality, Shakespeare puts the declaration into the mouth of a character who is an ignorant, cruel, uneducated lout, so it doesn't seem likely that he really thought the phrase should be taken literally. Even so, the phrase's popularity betrays an ambivalence in our culture which runs very deep.
Without law, it would not be possible to have created a society in which individuals should be allowed to follow their own conscience in all circumstances, except where their consciences intrude into the rights of other individuals. I'm allowed to believe that Wednesday is the true Sabbath day, for an example, but I'm not allowed to punish you for observing a different day, even if my religion says I should.
It is difficult to weigh the coexistence of the attorney as hero, who saves his client from persecution and unjustified harm, with the attorney as villain, who knowingly releases dangerous criminals through chicanery or who encourages people to fake injuries in order to bilk other people or businesses who haven't really done anything wrong.
In January, this column discussed The Big Read, a program sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which encourages everyone in each community to read the same book, so that those who aren't in the habit of serious reading might attempt it, and so the young people are surrounded by people discussing a good book. That way, they can come to realize how incredibly important it is that citizens in a democratic society should read.
Our local version of The Big Read stretches throughout Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties. The original NEA grant which makes it possible was written by the State University of New York at Fredonia, partnering with the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus County Library System.
Throughout all of February, good citizens have been showing up for book discussions, lectures, panel discussions, cook-offs, arts and crafts sessions, bird watching encounters, and many more such constructive, educational and wonderfully enjoyable events. The Big Read continues through the month of March.
Each of the four Wednesdays in March, the Robert H. Jackson Center, in Jamestown, will show - with no admission charge - a classic film dealing with the central concept of this year's Big Read: Lawyers and Literature. This week, I want to tell you enough about two of the four films in the hope that I can convince you to invest one or more evenings in questioning and examining your thoughts, not to mention enjoying some really outstanding artistry. The organizers hope that sharing the films with the others who show up to see them will encourage discussion and more thought.
Since the first Wednesday in March is already past, you've missed the showing of ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' the film of this year's selected book for the whole community to read. These are the remaining opportunities:
In each of these films, we see lawyers in their noble aspect, protecting the innocent. It's a message in keeping with our nation's goals and with the life and career of Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson, whose legacy the center seeks to preserve. The March 25 showing presents film and television actor Alec Baldwin, portraying Jackson himself, as he served as principal prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the post-World War II tribunal. Since I have already reviewed that film, I'll stick to the remaining pair.
Once again, I remind you there is no admission charge. The showings of films all begin at 7 p.m. and are all held in the Carl Cappa Theatre at the Robert H. Jackson Center. The theater is located on the southeastern corner of Fifth St. and Prendergast Ave., in downtown Jamestown.
Let's examine the two remaining films:
Twelve Angry Men
''Twelve Angry Men'' is a hymn to human decency and the ultimate potential for justice in the American jury system. It was originally written as a television screenplay in 1954, by Reginald Rose. The film was made three years later and has been ranked as number nine in the top 250 films of all time, chosen by the Internet Media Data Base.
When a person is accused of a crime in our system, the evidence - both against him and in his support - is presented to a panel of citizens, usually 12 in number. They are supposed to weigh both sides of the evidence and to decide beyond a reasonable doubt, whether he is guilty or not.
In this film, we see and hear the deliberations of a jury, made up of a variety of people from all walks of life: an architect, a high school football coach, a jeweler, a house painter, etc. They are taken by law, away from their jobs and their families, and required to sit in judgement on a young boy, who is accused of having stabbed his father to death. In 1957, this was a death penalty case, and the judge instructs them they must either send the boy to the electric chair or set him free.
At first, this seems like an open-and-shut case. In their first vote, the jury votes 11 to 1 for conviction. The one juror who holds out for acquittal admits that he isn't certain that the boy is innocent, but he believes that before they dare to take someone's life, they should examine each and every piece of evidence and be sure it proves what they think it proves.
The cast is made up of some of the biggest names of 50 years ago, including Henry Fonda, Martin Balsam, Jack Klugman, Lee J. Cobb, and Ed Begley. The film is in black and white, and sometimes the actors emote in stentorian terms, which seem unnatural to modern ears, but I've seen the film grab the attention of high school students determined in advance to dislike it. It should do even better with adults.
Cleverly, the script assures that each of the jurors demands some right or privilege for himself which he later denies to someone else on the jury or to the accused, or to one of the witnesses. Fonda's character insists that he doesn't owe the other jurors an explanation for his vote, for example, then demands that one of the other jurors must explain why he believes one of the witnesses.
While some of the jurors are determined to have responded out of prejudice or out of convenience or for a variety of negative reasons, the group ends by making the fairest decision they feel they can make, for the right reasons.
Each of us can only hope that if he is ever falsely accused of a crime, that a jury would have the same care for truth and intelligent examination of evidence.
Inherit the Wind
The film for March 18 is ''Inherit the Wind.'' The title comes from the Bible's book of Proverbs, which says, ''He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.''
A democratic system must, by definition, always be in conflict to some degree, with religion. Religion teaches us that we ought to do what God wills, regardless of whether it seems right or fair to the average person. That sounds reasonable, yet the problem arises on whose definition of God's will is involved. If the religion of the men who performed the savage murders of Sept. 11, 2001 was correct, they did the right thing.
Fortunately, very few people believe that they were right. Most people believe that their own beliefs are right, and many believe this entitles them to force their beliefs on others. Our society relies on lawyers and courts to preserve individuals' rights to freedom, to the extent that they don't impact someone else's freedom. You can believe that human sacrifice is a good idea, but you can't grab someone off the street and sacrifice him.
''Inherit the Wind'' is based upon a real historical event, yet it is not a documentary. Both the screenwriters, Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith, and the writers of the original play on which it is based, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, readily admit that they use the main actions of the historical people, but manipulate things so make the film more entertaining and to go beyond a plot about some specific events and to demonstrate the possibility of applying the lessons of the original events to all kinds of events in real life.
The original events which inspired the film took place in Dayton, Tenn. in the 1920s. The state legislature had passed a law called the Butler Act, which made it illegal to teach any belief which might conflict with a literal reading of the Bible's story of creation of the universe by God. A high school teacher named John Scopes was accused of teaching the beliefs of English naturalist Charles Darwin, who proposed the theory of evolution.
Opponents of teaching evolution engaged William Jennings Bryan, a former Secretary of State for the United States and three-time candidate for president, to serve as special prosecutor in the case.
Supporters of the Darwin theory hired Clarence Darrow, probably, then, the most celebrated defense attorney in the country, to defend Scopes. Famed Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken covered the trial in person, in terms utterly supportive of Scopes.
Scopes was convicted and fined, but his conviction was overturned on a technicality, on appeal. The Butler Act remained on the books in Tennessee another 40 years.
In the 1950s, in the face of the McCarthy hearings, which most Americans came to believe unjustly allowed some people to force their view of right and wrong onto others, the events were fictionalized into the play ''Inherit the Wind.'' The names of everyone involved were changed, as was the name of the town.
They attempted to change the setting from the 1920s to a non-descript period, suggesting that the same issues are in question and will always be in question, as long as people live in societies. To the modern eye, the clothing styles, vehicles and other elements still suggest the past, however.
Spencer Tracy is the film's star, playing the Darrow-like role. Other familiar faces in the cast include Gene Kelly as the Mencken character, Dick York, the first Darren from ''Bewitched,'' as the beleaguered teacher, and Harry Morgan, eventually to play the gruff but fatherly Col. Potter in the television series ''M*A*S*H.'' He played the judge.
The film was nominated for four Oscars, plus nine Golden Globes and similar awards. It is a dramatic and disturbing demonstration of how easily a disagreement in thinking can turn into a lynch mob mentality.
Reading a book and watching a film are not the same thing. Both have value, however.
The purpose of The Big Read is to encourage the people of our country to read, a skill which is fundamental to successful functioning of a democratic system, yet one which has fallen into steady decline. It's almost as though it has become too much trouble to breathe.
I hope you are reading ''To Kill a Mockingbird,'' and that you're talking about it in public, especially when there are young people around. If you aren't, I hope at least that you aren't running it down.
Seeing a good film, which stirs our emotions and makes us think and feel, often encourages us to go on beyond the film to read the book on which it is based.
It's true that students often try to cheat their way out of reading assignments by watching films of the same story, but there is a reason why learning and growing are considered good things.
Not all lawyers are good and decent people, but the best way to encourage as many as possible to be so, is to celebrate those who are.
I hope you'll drop by the Jackson Center on a Wednesday in March, to see one or more of these fine films.
When it comes right down to it, what page are you on?