Giuliano Montaldo's Sacco and Vanzetti can be included not only on any list of fine political films of the early '70s, but also on a tally of unintended consequences stemming from the Vietnam War and its attendant social upheavals. The movie presents a one-sided view of the American justice system that is almost certainly accurate for the era depicted, and there was, indeed, a great deal of activism and speechifying associated with the two men's trial and its aftermath, leading up to their execution. The prosecution and execution was enough of a political and intellectual flash point to yield one great American play during the '30s, Maxwell Anderson's Winterset (which, in turn, became a fine movie), and the whole event became a lingering sore point among Europeans (especially Italians) for decades. The strident and didactic tone of Montaldo's film, therefore, is to be expected. Under ordinary circumstances, the movie would have gotten only modest distribution in the United States and no publicity. (Americans tend to know the less-than-brutal "truths" about their history, concentrating on the safest, rosiest, most one-sided outlook on most of it, and the Sacco and Vanzetti trial wasn't in the history curriculum of too many high schools.) The film should have passed barely noticed; instead, it became a hit, with extended runs in major cities and a lot of press behind it, and was even widely shown on television later in the decade. This was mostly a result of its having been released during the Vietnam War amid the Nixon administration's active campaign against anti-war immigrants and visitors (as well as citizens). Montaldo's movie ended up touching a raw nerve in the U.S. and providing a history lesson to many Americans who knew nothing of the original facts behind the case, and added to the radicalization of millions of them.
As it happens, the film, for all of its stridency, is also well made, which helps. Established actors from the American and British stages, including Milo O'Shea, William Prince, and Cyril Cusack, provided just enough familiarity amid the largely Italian cast to make the movie work dramatically, and the message and story did the rest. In addition, the presence of Joan Baez, then a leader of the anti-war movement, on the soundtrack -- which yielded a charting single for RCA -- helped pull in thousands of politically sympathetic filmgoers. That said, Sacco and Vanzetti is ultimately a somewhat heavy-handed film, more message than drama, but the story it tells, coupled with the sincerity of its participants, overcomes that flaw, and its own history makes it as much a history lesson about the early '70s as the script was a history lesson about the '20s.