Robin’s Underrated Gems: The Onion Field (1979)

The words “This is a True Story” instantly pop up onto the screen after the opening credits of The Onion Field have concluded and those words form the basis of what turns out to be a fairly unconventional crime drama. Unlike many Hollywood films that are based on true stories, The Onion Field strives to be accurate and stick to the actual facts as much possible. The film is based on the senseless, highly controversial 1963 murder of a Los Angeles police officer named Ian Campbell and was adapted from the bestselling novel about the case by Joseph Wambaugh. After starting out his career as a police officer, Wambaugh turned to writing in the early 1970s and published a series of successful crime novels, some of which were fiction and some of which were “true crime” stories. He eventually achieved so much notoriety that he would leave the L.A.P.D. and make writing his full-time career. Inevitably, Hollywood would come calling to adapt some of his stories, but Wambaugh became very disillusioned when the film version of his acclaimed novel, The Choirboys, turned out to be a critical and commercial failure. He still wanted to do a film adaptation of The Onion Field, but since it was based on such a tragic and controversial real-life case, he didn’t want it to be compromised by any Hollywood interference. He personally ensured this by writing the screenplay himself and putting up most of the financing for the film, which gave him complete creative control. As a result, The Onion Field is a very faithful retelling of the case that it’s based on, but it doesn’t resemble your typical cop story, and even though it received some acclaim upon its initial release, it remains underrated today.

During the first act of The Onion Field, we become acquainted with the two cops and two criminals whose paths will eventually collide. L.A.P.D. officers Karl Hettinger (John Savage) and Ian Campbell (Ted Danson) become partners around the same time a unique alliance is formed between a pair of hoods who have both been recently released from prison: a charismatic, manipulative sociopath named Gregory Powell (James Woods) and a weak, insecure young black man named Jimmy Smith (Franklyn Seales). On the night of March 9, 1963, Greg and Jimmy are cruising through Hollywood on their way to perform a robbery when they are pulled over by Hettinger and Campbell on a routine traffic stop. After Greg takes Campbell hostage and forces Hettinger to surrender his gun, the two cops are kidnapped by and forced to drive out into the country. When they arrive at an onion field in the middle of nowhere, Campbell is shot to death, but Hettinger is able to escape. Greg and Jimmy are apprehended soon afterward, but this only marks the beginning of one of the longest, most needlessly complicated criminal court cases in history. Like the original tagline for the movie stated: “What happens in the onion field was true. But the real crime is what happened after”. While it’s indisputable that Greg fired the first bullet into Campbell, that particular shot did not actually kill him, and it was the four shots fired into Campbell while he was on the ground that ended his life. The problem is that no one could determine with any certainly whether it was Greg or Jimmy who fired those four shots and that question would cause the courts to be tied up for years.

Greg and Jimmy both accuse each other of firing the fatal four shots into Campbell while he was on the ground, and since it was dark and he was in the midst running away, Hettinger could not see which one of them actually did it. Both men were sentenced to death at their original trial, but controversy was stirred up about whether either man should be executed if it couldn’t officially be proven which one of them fired the fatal shots. In particular, was it fair to send Jimmy Smith to the gas chambers if there was reasonable doubt that he fired a gun at all that night? As a result, the two men would both go through numerous appeals and exploit legal loopholes in attempt to secure new trial. This would result in a bureaucratic nightmare that would drag the case through the courts for seven years. Unfortunately, these events would help lead Karl Hettinger down a path to self-destruction. Hettinger would already feel immense guilt about surrendering his gun and be treated with scorn by those in the department who held him responsible for Campbell’s death, so having to testify at numerous trials and relive the events of that night over and over again only worsened Hettinger’s situation. He would turn to shoplifting and eventually lose his job with the L.A.P.D. before coming dangerously close to suicide. The Onion Field becomes a searing indictment of the justice system, a harrowing depiction of how badly criminals can exploit it, and pulls no punches at showing the negative effects this can have on crime victims and survivors. Because Joseph Wambaugh had full creative control when adapting his own novel into a screenplay, the last half of The Onion Field has a very episodic structure. One of the main criticisms that has always been directed at the film it has no real dramatic climax and just kind of meanders its way to the end, but the reason for this is because… well, the case itself didn’t have any real dramatic climax! The actual “Onion Field Murder Trials” just quietly ended while everyone moved on with their life and that’s exactly how the movie depicts it. Wambaugh always took pride in the fact that all of the events in his novel and his screenplay could be corroborated and he was not about to disrespect the real people involved by fudging the facts and taking some major dramatic license. The story of “The Onion Field Murder Trials” is a very dark and sad one which offers no easy answers, and neither does this movie. There are actually some moments in the film that manage to be both sad and funny at the same time as the two defendants quickly realize that one of the best methods of helping their case is by dragging their trials out as long as possible and turning them into a farce.

While the style of storytelling employed by The Onion Field could easily alienate some viewers, the quality of the acting carries the narrative along beautifully. After working mainly as a character actor and supporting player throughout most of the 1970s, James Woods’ riveting portrayal of Greg Powell is what finally sent down the road to stardom. Woods brings his usual brand of energy and intensity of the role, and perfectly showcases how easily Greg can transition from being charming and pleasant to becoming a scary psychopath. He gets solid support from Franklyn Seales, an actor who would go on to fame by appearing in the popular sitcom, Silver Spoons, before his tragic death due to complications from AIDS in 1990. Even though Jimmy is a pretty pathetic individual, Seales brings a sad innocence to the character that allows you to feel sorry for him … even though Wambaugh has gone on record stating that he believes Jimmy was the one who actually fired the fatal four shots. John Savage is so good at depicting Hettinger’s guilt and torment that he’s almost too painful to watch at times, particularly during the harrowing sequence where he attempts suicide. The Onion Field marked Ted Danson’s official film debut and even though his later success on Cheers would typecast him in mostly comedic roles, he does show himself to be a very solid dramatic actor in the limited amount of screen time he has here. Anyway, while most of the people involved in this case are now deceased, Gregory Powell is still serving a life sentence in prison and is now 77 years old. In fact, he has been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and was just denied compassionate release by the California State Parole Board last month. After nearly 50 years, it seems that the last chapter in the “Onion Field Murder Trials” may finally be closing very soon. Anyway, The Onion Field remains one of the more accurate and convincing “true crime” films ever made, as it refuses to glamourize police work and does not shy away from showcasing just how tedious and flawed the criminal court system can really be. Those who watch the film expecting a traditional police thriller may be disappointed, but those who want to see a very intelligent, impassioned and well-acted story that asks some very difficult questions and shows the far-reaching negative effects of senseless crime are advised to check it out.

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