The Trial of the Catonsville Nine


1h 25m 1972

Brief Synopsis

Based on trial of Father Daniel Berrigan and eight other Vietnam War protesters who burned draft records, this film examines the motives of war protesters of the time.

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Adaptation
Drama
Political
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
Cannes Film Festival screening and New York opening: 15 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 24 May 1972
Production Company
Melville Productions, Inc.; The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
Distribution Company
Cinema 5, Ltd.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan (Los Angeles, 6 Aug 1970).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m

Synopsis

On May 17, 1968, seven men and two women burst into the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, pushing past startled clerks to grab hundreds of 1A draft records and stuffing them into wire incinerator baskets. The group then flee to the parking lot, where they set the records on fire with homemade napalm. While their actions are recorded by a film crew, one of the group, a priest, recites the Lord's Prayer. The priest, Father Philip Berrigan, explains that they are burning draft records in order to save a few young men from the horrors of the Vietnam War. After they wait for the police to arrive, all nine are arrested without incident. Months later the trial of the group begins in a Baltimore, Maryland, courthouse. While freely admitting they committed the illegal acts, the nine defendants┬┐Philip and his brother, Father Daniel Berrigan, Marjorie and Thomas Melville, John Hogan, George Mische, Mary Moylan, David Darst and Thomas Lewis┬┐insist on testifying before the jury. Beginning with nurse Mary, the defendants describe incidents from their past that caused them to question American policy and led to their decision to burn the Catonsville draft records. Mary talks about witnessing the bombing of a Ugandan village, where she was doing relief work, by secret American planes. George, who once worked for the Alliance for Progress in Central America, reveals his frustration at America's support of brutal Latin American dictators. Philip recalls his World War II service, noting that he strongly supported that effort, and how it opened his eyes to racism in America. Because of his subsequent involvement in the civil rights movement, Philip came to see the racism inherent in the Vietnam draft. Thomas, a former priest, and wife Marjorie, a former nun, describe their time in Guatemala, where the American government and the United Fruit Company conspired to have revolutionary peasants assassinated. Marjorie speaks eloquently about her love for America and the painful loss of innocence she experienced while in Guatemala. Art teacher Lewis says he became a war protester after his younger brother went to Vietnam. To the judge's annoyance, Lewis then mentions another illegal protest in which he and Philip were involved, during which he poured blood on the draft records of black men. While Mary and David, a Christian Brother and teacher, defend their symbolic use of napalm to burn the Catonsville draft records, Mary comments that burning paper with napalm is preferable to "using napalm on human beings." John, an ex-Christian Brother who like the Melvilles had spent time in Guatemala, says he went to Catonsville simply because he wanted "people to live." As the defendants make their case, the judge and prosecutor object repeatedly, questioning the relevancy of their testimony. Philip and Daniel, however, continue to connect their past with the present. Daniel, whom the Catholic Church once exiled to Latin America as punishment for his activism, cites his trip to Hanoi to retrieve American prisoners of war and the self-immolation of a young war protester as direct causes of his own antiwar activities. When asked by the judge to state the exact reason for breaking the law in Catonsville, Daniel says that he participated in the burning in order to "save the children of the judge and the jury." After the defense rests, the prosecutor sums up the state's case. He argues that the nine defendants cannot be acquitted simply because they object to the government's actions, and that social problems will only increase if citizens violate laws. In his summation, the defense lawyer compares the actions of the protesters to American revolutionary Peter Zanger and to Jesus Christ. The judge then addresses the jury, admonishing them to decide the case based not on their conscience, but on the facts. After the jury leaves to deliberate, Thomas asks the judge to decide the case himself, but the judge refuses. The judge admits that while he agrees with the defendants' position on the war, he cannot condone breaking the law. Even the prosecutor, a black man, expresses sympathy for the defendants' cause. Philip argues that the law is no longer serving the best interests of the people, and George comments that one judge and one verdict could change the course of the war. Before the jury returns, the defendants receive permission to recite the Lord's Prayer aloud. The verdict then is read, and all nine are found guilty. In closing Daniel proclaims that "this was the greatest day of our lives."

Film Details

MPAA Rating
Genre
Adaptation
Drama
Political
Release Date
May 1972
Premiere Information
Cannes Film Festival screening and New York opening: 15 May 1972; Los Angeles opening: 24 May 1972
Production Company
Melville Productions, Inc.; The Trial of the Catonsville Nine
Distribution Company
Cinema 5, Ltd.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine by Daniel Berrigan (Los Angeles, 6 Aug 1970).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 25m

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

As noted onscreen, Daniel Berrigan's free verse play The Trial of the Catonsville Nine and its film adaptation were "taken substantially from the court record, Criminal Action No. 28111, United States District Court, Baltimore, Maryland, October, 1968." The illegal antiwar protest depicted in the film (but not in the play) took place on May 17, 1968 in Catonsville, MD, a close suburb of Baltimore. The background and experiences of the defendants are conveyed accurately in the picture. In 1965, Philip Berrigan (1923-2002), a Josephite priest, organized the Baltimore Interfaith Peace Mission and undertook a series of antiwar activities, including demonstrations at Fort Myer, VA, and Fort Holabird, MD. In 1967, along with fellow Catonsville defendant Thomas Lewis and two other Interfaith members, Berrigan raided the Baltimore Selective Service office and poured blood on several hundred draft records. As they had hoped, the Interfaith protesters were arrested and indicted. While awaiting trial, Berrigan and Lewis planned the Catonsville protest with George Mische, recruiting the six other participants, including Philip's brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest.
       The Catonsville action attracted much media attention, especially for the Berrigans, who under the caption "Rebel Priests: The Curious Case of the Berrigans," appeared on the cover of Time magazine on January 25, 1971. According to historical sources, the Catonsville Nine protest invigorated the 1960s peace movement and inspired other "number group" actions, including the Milwaukee Fourteen and the New York Eight. Not depicted in the film were the intense press coverage of the five-day trial and the demonstrations that took place outside the Post Office building courthouse. On the trial's opening day, over 1,500 protesters marched to the courthouse, carrying signs and chanting "Free the Nine." When the nine defendants entered the courtroom, over 200 spectators greeted them with a two-minute standing ovation. In the film, the names of the lawyers and the presiding judge are not specified, but the head of the defense team was William M. Kunstler (1919-1995), a well-known civil rights crusader.
       The jury took two hours to reach their verdict. As noted onscreen, David Darst, Mary Moylan, Marjorie Melville and John Hogan received two-year sentences; Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Melville and George Mische three-year sentences, and Philip Berrigan and Thomas Lewis three-and-a-half-year sentences, "to run concurrently with previous six year sentence" for the Baltimore raid. Following unsuccessful appeals, the Melvilles and Hogan went immediately to jail; Darst died in a car accident prior to incarceration. Moylan, Mische, Lewis and the Berrigans went underground. Philip turned himself in in April 1969, Mische was captured by the FBI in May 1969 and Daniel was apprehended in August 1969. Moylan eluded capture but surrended in 1978. Daniel, who was released on parole in February 1972, wrote his play while incarcerated.
       In the film, the Catonsville action is presented in black and white under the opening credits. Shot with a jerky hand-held camera, it closely resembles film taken during the actual protest. Black-and-white news footage of Vietnam War atrocities is interspersed throughout the beginning of the picture. The trial sequences were shot entirely in color. As the trial begins, Ed Flanders, as Father Daniel Berrigan, speaks directly to the camera, reciting his antiwar poetry. For more information on the Vietnam War and anti-war demonstrations, please see the entry below for the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier.
       Although onscreen credits include a copyright statement, the film was not registered for copyright at the time of its release. It was registered for copyright on June 13, 1980, under the number PA-70-818. The copyright claimant is listed onscreen as "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Limited Partnership." In 1980, the copyright claimant was listed as "Trial of the Catonsville Nine Company." Onscreen credits note that Berrigan's play was "first presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles." The play was performed first as part of the Mark Taper's New Theatre for Now series in August 1970. The play then opened off-Broadway at the Good Shepherd Faith Church on February 7, 1971. On June 1, 1971 it began a regular run at the Mark Taper Forum, and on June 2, 1971, it opened on Broadway at the Lyceum Theater. Onscreen credits include the following statement: "Produced on the New York stage by Leland Hayward and Phoenix Theatre, T. Edward Hambleton, Managing Director." All four productions were directed by Gordon Davidson, the artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine marked Davidson's film directing debut. Makeup artist Ted Coodley's last name is misspelled in onscreen credits as "Koodley" and sound re-recorder Robert Knudson's last name is misspelled "Knudsen." In the closing cast credits, Philip Berrigan's first name is misspelled "Phillip," but is spelled correctly elsewhere onscreen.
       According to news items, the film's modest $250,000 budget came from a partnership between Gregory Peck, producing for the third time in his career, and six other investors. Peck, who reportedly supplied the bulk of the budget, decided to bring the play to the screen after seeing the Taper production in Los Angeles. In a contemporary interview, Peck stated that while he did not agree with everything the Catonsville Nine stood for, he agreed with "their attitude toward our continued involvement in Vietnam" and wanted a wider audience to experience the play. To keep the picture's budget low, the cast was paid Screen Actors Guild minimums plus one percent of the box office profits, and the film was shot on a tight eight-day schedule. The cast was taken from the various New York and Los Angeles stage productions. Actor David Spielberg made his motion picture debut in the film.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1972

Released in United States 1972