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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell 1955
Description: A dramatization of the American general and his court martial for publically complaining about High Command's dismissal and neglect of the aerial fighting forces.
Released: 31 Dec 1955 Director: Otto Preminger Writers: Milton Sperling (story and screenplay), Emmet Lavery (story and screenplay) Actors: Gary Cooper, Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Rod Steiger Genres: Biography, Drama, War
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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Reviews:

In 1925 the U.S. Naval Air Force's major fresh piece of military hardware was a zeppelin that had been built in Germany at the end of the First Globe War, which was given to the U.S as a reparation, and renamed the U.S.S. Shenandoah. The craft had a crack squad running it, and it had an perfect head, Commander Zachary Landowne. It was in fair demand around the country, for most folks believed that the future of long distance air travel would be in airships, not airplanes. So the Navy brass frequently sent the Shenandoah on public relations flights, rather than using it for military purposes or long distance flights.It was sent to Ohio where local politicians wanted to test the zeppelin to impress voters. Unfortunately, there was a storm front with massive thundershowers in the path of the zeppelin, and the zeppelin had recently had some hurt to a fin on it's tale. There had been no time to repair the damage. So when the zeppelin crossed into the storm front, the zeppelin was ripped apart by the winds and ruined killing Landsdowne and fourteen men. Landsdowne's close friend, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell was exceptionally critical of the disaster. He blamed the politicians and military brass who ordered the flight. As Mitchell had been long a thorn in the side of these two groups, as he tried to push his views on air power and the need for a unified, powerful air force, he was charged with insubordination and ordered to be court martial-ed.Gary Cooper plays Mitchell well, as an honest, honorable man, who realizes that the future will be only secure for those who have a powerful air arm. He is fighting old fashion ideas, mouthed by old fashioned units leaders like Fred Clark. He does have allies like his lawyer, a Congressman played by Ralph Bellamy, and like one of the judges (General Douglas MacArthur - who was the only one to vote for acquittal). But the trouble goes down to the Mitchell's insubordination. And this leads to the dramatic high point, when Cooper is cross-examined by the malicious and intelligent Rod Steiger. Steiger is able to receive Cooper to not only reveal his lack of respect for the brass but to reveal his mistrust of the Japanese. That he is correct in the long run does not save him - he is found guilty and suspended without pay from the units for five years.Mitchell died in 1936, not in time to see his vindication five years later. But he is remembered actually as the true founder of the modern American Air Force. The movie is a cute nice retelling of his story, and reminds us how frequently a prophet is despised and rejected in his or her time.


Several who aren't students of the history of airpower today recognize the name of William "Billy" Mitchell. An early pilot in the U.S. Army's fledgling Air Corps, he served in Globe Fight I when no American-produced plane saw action above the trenches of France. Notwithstanding the Wright brother's initial breathtaking powered flight, by 1914 England, France and Germany were far ahead of us in not only aircraft design but also in fashioning strategies for a fresh type of warfare.Mitchell returned from the fight not only a convert to the future of airpower but as a zealot advocating his prophecy to all who would listen (and to very many who didn't wish to). The post-war Units suffered heavy cutbacks. Mitchell reverted from brigadier general to his permanent rank of colonel, a more gentle demotion than many others experienced.The Army's first postwar chief of staff was the only boy ever to keep the rank of General of the Armies, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. Pershing now appreciated aviation's potential to a true degree but he faced a budget-cutting congress while leading an units with too many senior officers who dimly recalled fighting Indians from the saddle.Mitchell was given the occasion to sink the German fight prize battleship "Ostfriesland." A rather foolish cabinet member offered to watch the aerial bombing from the warship's deck, so certain was he that the vessel couldn't be destroyed from the air. Fortunately for him his offer was not taken up.Gary Cooper turns in a quietly passionate role as the Air Corps leader who did sink the "Ostfriesland." In the movie he's shown disobeying fight minigame guidelines and using one-ton bombs not approved for the exercise. That never happened. He went by the guidelines (that time). His and his pilots' achievements were dismissed, however, by battleship-loving admirals who claimed that the use was meaningless since the ship wasn't defending itself. Some Japanese observers were less sure that this was a valid analysis.Gary Cooper's Billy Mitchell, despite deviations from the true story, is a remarkably accurate picture of a dedicated officer with unrestrained hubris whose public and volatile denunciations of Units and Navy superiors for numerous fatal crashes led to his then highly-publicized court-martial.Ralph Bellamy as Congressman Frank Reid is Mitchell's chief counsel. A blistering but unreal cross-examination by the young Rod Steiger as MAJ Allan Gullion is the the dramatic high mission of the film. It's something we expect from the courtroom genre. Mitchell is convicted of, in essence, disobedience, and is placed on a long-term suspended status (in reality the effective and current termination of his military career without the continuing public interest that incarceration would have brought).Cooper is strongly expressive while exuding a strong sense of private morality and duty as Mitchell defined that quality. That largely matches the true Mitchell.As defense witnesses we see the young H.H. Arnold (to achieve five-star rank in Globe Fight II) and Carl Spaatz, a four-star architect of strategic bombing in the next war. These officers persevered in their dedication to birthing a strong air force and they did it without losing their careers and thus their effectiveness (in that regard they mirrored young field grade officers such as George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower in their crusade to take the Units from the horse to the tank).Cooper walks out of the movie in civilian clothing, a slightly confused expression on his face. He could have been confused. For the remainder of his life, which ended before the fight he predicted, he was essentially marginalized as aviation expanded and America slowly recognized the need to build a globe class air force.Overall, for historical precision "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" is solid on the central storyline and fictional on the margins.This DVD transfer, however, borders on dreadful. Colors are washed out and voice lvls shift slightly over and over. But it's well worth watching.7/10.


In the USAF we were taught about Billy Mitchell as being the "Father of the Air Force", and how he sacrificed his career to bring attention to his points.What a nice movie. Rod Steiger did steal the scenes, and I suspect that James Cagney would have made a better movie... but I found myself becoming drawn in by Gary Cooper's portrayal of Billy Mitchell. He might have been a bit long in the tooth, but remember, the true Billy Mitchell was 46 years old at the time of his Court Martial, at about the age when he could begin thinking about retirement anyhow.It plays like a scene play; the storyline is enough to create a strong punch. 2 Thumbs Up. See it. Receive it on DVD if you can, so you can read the subtitles and not miss a thing.



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