The Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell (1955)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5

USA, 1955. . Story and Screenplay by , . Cinematography by . Produced by Milton Sperling. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by . 

The Great War has ended and America celebrates its victory by returning to peacetime with little thought to its military forces, allowing conditions to go to seed in all branches of the army. Most ignored is the fledgling Air Force that was barely given consideration as more than just a messenger service during the war, and is now struggling to justify its existence. At the beginning of this film we see an attempt to do just that in an operation where Brigadier General William Mitchell () flies bombers over a captured German vessel to sink it and prove that airplanes would be effective instruments in a live battle.

The stunt gets Mitchell demoted and sent from his cushy Washington posting to the wilds of Texas to play out his punishment, continuing his efforts to speak out against poorly maintained equipment to politicians who refuse to give him the time of day. When people close to him are killed in unnecessary accidents because they are operating faulty vessels that should have been decommissioned or repaired, Mitchell takes matters into his own hands and calls a press conference to decry the conditions in the army, knowing that it will bring him heat from above.

His plan works and he is court-martialled in military court, defended by a Congressman () who believes strongly in his cause but is hampered in by a bench that is determined to keep the defendant from speaking out: Mitchell’s press conference broke the letter of military law regardless of whether or not it was justified, and presiding judge tows this line, refusing to allow witnesses to speak to whether or not the military earned the criticisms it received in Mitchell’s insubordinate statements.

After the widow of a Navy Officer killed in an airship, played by a very young , testifies on the defendant’s behalf and reveals that she has been pressured by the army to keep a tight lip, however, the tide turns and moves in favour of our hero, who is unlikely to walk away unscathed but will at least get his day in court.

Based on a true story, the details of which have been jumbled around for the purposes of dramatic licence, this is not one of Otto Preminger’s finer efforts, made the same year as his much more daring The Man With The Golden Arm and possessing none of the depth and complexity of that movie. Whether or not Mitchell is a hero is not of interest to Preminger but it’s hard to know what is, the irony of the character’s predicting not only the importance of air combat in the next war but also the actual attack on Pearl Harbour doesn’t seem to strike a particularly resonant chord with the director, who will have a great deal more success squeezing the juice out of the proceedings of a courtroom drama four years later in Anatomy of a Murder.

Perhaps the tickler here is the fact that America’s identification with military power, something that is now treated as inevitable and traditional, turns out to have been a recent development in the country’s history (very recent in the case of this film’s release date), but even that is just a stab in the dark.

Between Preminger’s unmotivated direction, Cooper giving one of the weakest performances of his career and a script that has moments of impressive intelligence but is for the most part cold as stone, there’s only fragments worth holding on to here.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Story and Screenplay

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