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The true story of General Billy Mitchell, a pioneering crusader for the Army's fledgling air corp. In spite of an impressive performance during the First World War, the commanders of America's armed forces still think of the airplane as little more then a carnival attraction. Even after sinking an "unsinkable" captured German battleship from the air, Mitchell sees funds dry up and friends die due to poor equipment. He is court-martialed after questioning the loyalty of his superiors for allowing the air corp to deteriorate. Written by
KC Hunt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The Auto-Destruction of a Pioneer Air Power Visionary
Few 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 World War 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 tactics for a new kind of warfare.
Mitchell returned from the war 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 want to). The post-war Army suffered massive 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 man ever to hold the rank of General of the Armies, John J. "Black Jack" Pershing. Pershing actually appreciated aviation's potential to a real degree but he faced a budget-cutting congress while leading an army with too many senior officers who dimly recalled fighting Indians from the saddle.
Mitchell was given the opportunity to sink the German war 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 film he's shown disobeying war game rules and using one-ton bombs not approved for the exercise. That never happened. He went by the rules (that time). His and his pilots' achievements were dismissed, however, by battleship-loving admirals who claimed that the test 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 real story, is a remarkably accurate picture of a dedicated officer with unrestrained hubris whose public and volatile denunciations of Army 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 point 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 actual termination of his military career without the continuing public interest that incarceration would have brought).
Cooper is strongly expressive while exuding a powerful sense of personal morality and duty as Mitchell defined that quality. That largely matches the real Mitchell.
As defense witnesses we see the young H.H. Arnold (to achieve five-star rank in World War II) and Carl Spaatz, a four-star architect of strategic bombing in the next war. These officers persevered in their dedication to birthing a powerful 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 Army from the horse to the tank).
Cooper walks out of the film in civilian clothing, a slightly confused expression on his face. He should have been confused. For the remainder of his life, which ended before the war he predicted, he was essentially marginalized as aviation expanded and America slowly recognized the need to build a world class air force.
Overall, for historical accuracy "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" is solid on the central story and fictional on the margins.
This DVD transfer, however, borders on dreadful. Colors are washed out and voice levels shift slightly over and over. But it's well worth watching.
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