When Justice and Law Diverge

The Jack Bull.jpg

Following the seminar on popular justice in which I had the pleasure to take part, I’m strongly recommending to the participants (and to anyone else interested in issues of justice and law) a very fine movie that got much too little attention: The Jack Bull. It’s combines good acting, good directing, excellent camera work (and beautiful setting), and a brilliant story, which is basically a very faithful transposition of Heinrich von Kleist’s novelette “Michael Kohlhaas” (available in English in this edition of his stories and in German in this edition) to the Wyoming territory just before statehood. In place of the Elector of Brandenburg, for example, you get John Goodman as a frontier judge.

The film is a great conversation starter, as I saw when Randy Barnett brought it to a seminar in Germany of the Institute for Economic Studies — Europe at which we both taught. One session was devoted to watching and then discussing the film and the students, who came from Germany, Bulgaria, Russia, France, Italy, Britain, and a number of other countries, used the occasion well to work out their ideas about the relationship of law to justice.

(As an aside, Kleist’s other short stories are brilliant, as well, and well worth reading.)

8 Responses to “When Justice and Law Diverge”

  1. Anonymous

    I just realized I *have* seen this movie, or at least the last 80% of it, having caught it last year by chance, flipping through the cable channels. I was immediately caught up in the political philosophy that motivated the actions of the main protagonist, and how justice was served. An excellent movie. I had never heard of it when it first came out.


  2. TomPalmer.Com:

    It looks to me like Tom Palmer has updated the appearance of his website and blog, TomPalmer.com. Tom is an old friend of mine of whom I have enormous respect. In addition to his formidable skills as a politic…

  3. Juan Carlos Hidalgo

    Speaking about films, by any chance do you know about a good documentary or movie on the Constitutional debates?

  4. Tom G. Palmer

    That’s a great question, Juan Carlos. I hope that someone else can post a better response than I can. I can recommend, for the period of the war for independence, the musical “1776” (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000067D1R/qid%3D1115674695/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/104-3031661-1284746 ). You might also look at Richard Brookhiser’s documentary on George Washington (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0002V7O06/qid=1115675187/sr=1-2/ref=sr_1_2/104-3031661-1284746?v=glance&s=dvd ). Any other ideas out there?

  5. Radovan


    thanks so much for mentioning “The Jack Bull” on the blog. By far one of the most memorable movies I have seen in last years. Great libertarian content as well!

    I am looking forward to more movie suggestions.

  6. Jonathon Burns

    I heartily agree with your assessment. I own a copy of “Jack” myself and view it every few months. Each viewing, I have a faint hope of seeing Cusack kill the rancher and get away. Although, I’m not at at all certain Goodman’s judgment was unjust. Pleasantly surprised to see the film listed here.

  7. Jonathon Burns

    One last thing: the Jack Bull has always made me consider the issue of violence as a means of attaining justice. It seems violence is sometimes the only way for peace to be secured, tyranny to be toppeled, but it is such a dangerous tool. How easily it can devolve into chaos. Then again, what is one to do when faced with the cruel unjustice – as in the case with Cusack’s character? I suppose it’s a good warning to corrupt political actors: act appropriately or x will happen. But if both are right (i.e., Cusack and Goodman), it seems Cusack loses more than the bad judge. How can we rely upon modern Cusacks to maintain a stable check against government in an age where technology’s power is so absolute, and where it’s inconceivable that a private citizen could scare the pants off of federal troops?