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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.
This movie which is supposed to be about Billy Mitchell, an early
of air power and of his subsequent court martial for insubordination was
entertaining, but as with most Hollywood productions which are made from
true stories, was filled with errors.
During the first part of the movie, Billy Mitchell allegedly violated orders by using one-ton bombs that he was told not to use. That is a falsehood. Mitchell had permission to use the heavier bombs. In addition, in the movie, the general overseeing the bombing tests was a General Guthrie. There was no such person.
The movie showed Mitchell being reduced in rank for violating orders which was another falsehood. He was reduced in rank, but not for this reason. As previously stated, Mitchell had permission to use the heavier bombs.
The movie also portrayed Mitchell as being a bachelor, when in reality, he was married. In fact, pictures of Mitchell at his court martial show his wife sitting next to him!
The movie also showed Mitchell telling Congressman Reed, that he wouldn't go along with Reed wanting to challenge Army members of the court for prejudice. In reality, Mitchell had one general removed for that reason. After his removal, the general remarked that he and Mitchell were now enemies.
Just once, I wish that Hollywood, when making a movie of a true event, would make it like it really happened and stop changing things to suit what they want the public to see.
I think the biggest mis-casting was having Gary Cooper playing Billy Mitchell. The real Billy Mitchell was a firebrand who wasn't afraid to speak his mind. Cooper, in the movie, was more laid back and just didn't impress me as being the right actor to play Mitchell.
In 1925 the U.S. Naval Air Force's major new piece of military hardware
was a zeppelin that had been built in Germany at the end of the First
World War, which was given to the U.S as a reparation, and renamed the
U.S.S. Shenandoah. The craft had a crack team running it, and it had an
excellent head, Commander Zachary Landowne. It was in fair demand
around the country, for most people 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 use the zeppelin to impress voters. Unfortunately, there was a storm front with heavy thundershowers in the path of the zeppelin, and the zeppelin had recently had some damage 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 crashed 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, strong 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 safe for those who have a strong air arm. He is fighting old fashion ideas, mouthed by old fashioned army 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 issue goes down to the Mitchell's insubordination. And this leads to the dramatic high point, when Cooper is cross-examined by the malicious and clever Rod Steiger. Steiger is able to get 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 army for five years.
Mitchell died in 1936, not in time to see his vindication five years later. But he is remembered now as the real founder of the modern American Air Force. The film is a pretty good retelling of his story, and reminds us how frequently a prophet is despised and rejected in his or her time.
Too add to the comments already made in this database I would like to
out that viewers seem to forget that the testimony in the film by Major
Arnold, Captain Eddie Rickenbaker, Major Karl Spatz and Fiorello LaGuardia
substantiated Colonel Mitchell's facts.
As for whether the court-martial did what it intended to do, obviously it did not in Pearl Harbor's case, however, it may have helped development of better aircraft and aircraft carriers during the 30's, especially when one considers this was during a depression.
What could have been brought to light was the complacency of the public at the time, roaring 20's, etc.. Also the public's isolationist outlook.
At any rate, General Mitchell will always be a hero to airmen, along with General Hap Arnold and others.
Otto Preminger was perhaps honing his skills as a director, because
this film seems to be a dress rehearsal for his greatest achievement,
"Anatomy of a Murder", which is a classic of the courtroom drama genre.
The movie is interesting in that it presents a man of honor, Billy Mitchell, who not only was an aviation pioneer, but a visionary that pointed out to the future in uncanny ways. He realized that wars were going to be fought in the air, and that soon the world would shrink thanks to faster planes than the primitive two engine jobs he was flying during WWI.
Billy Mitchell was an outcast, rejected by the same people that were too obtuse to realize the upcoming revolution in aeronautics. In trying to prove a point, Billy is found guilty and tried for disobeying orders. It's a sad story in which a highly developed mind, like Billy's has to contend with the ignorance of his peers. Testimony from other leading figures of the time, such as Eddie Rickenbacker, and others speak volumes about Mitchell's incredible insight on the new technology and how vulnerable America was from air raids by enemies.
Gary Cooper's approach to the role doesn't clarify much about the real life Mitchell. He is not quite as effective as in many of his most outstanding films. Somehow we don't get any passion out of his character, where perhaps another actor would have run away with the role. Mr. Cooper's take on Mitchell, or perhaps Otto Preminger's direction, doesn't shed much insight in the character.
The best thing in the movie is Rod Steiger as Allan Gullion, who is brought to the trial to help the main prosecution officer. He steals the picture in his short time in front of the camera. Mr Steiger brings a different concept to this officer; he stands out against all the other people around him. What a presence he had! In contrast with Mr. Cooper's stoic presence, Mr. Steiger was ready to smolder the screen if given the chance.
The rest of the cast is outstanding. Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Elizabeth Montgomery, Jack Lord, James Daly, Fred Clark, among others, enhance this movie.
The only problem with the copy I saw, is the horrible coloring that tends to give a fading images. This is a film in need of restoration.
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
What a good 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 real Billy Mitchell was 46 years old at the time of his Court Martial, at about the age when he should start thinking about retirement anyhow.
It plays like a stage play; the story is enough to make a powerful punch.
2 Thumbs Up. See it. Get it on DVD if you can, so you can read the subtitles and not miss a thing.
Otto Preminger put together a real good cast to tell the story of The
Court Martial of Billy Mitchell, considered by many to be the spiritual
founder of the American Air Force. Gary Cooper was only a few years
older than Billy Mitchell when he chose to publicly criticize the
existing services and invite a court martial and fits the part as right
as he did when playing Lou Gehrig.
What to do and who would control the airplane as a strategic weapon was a running debate even before World War I. By the time that Mitchell court martial took place in the mid Twenties, nearly every other country with the means had founded a separate Air Force. America would not have a separate Air Force until 1947 when the Army and Navy were put under one Department of Defense and an Air Force created from those members of the Army Air Corps who wished to join.
No one ever doubted the airplane had some value in war time. Those like the general Charles Bickford played who is an amalgamation of many in the service that Gary Cooper unsuccessfully dealt with, saw it as a thing for scouting, maybe transportation. Billy Mitchell saw it as far more than that.
Mitchell fought hard for money that to further develop airplanes that the Army and Navy wouldn't even ask Congress for if Congress were so disposed to give it back then. After several fliers were killed in some planes that were little more than kites with motors, Mitchell lambasted both services and got his court martial.
Military historians from then till now still debate the value of the airplane in war. The best that can be determined is that air superiority can give one an edge in a close contest. It can't win a war all by itself. If it could Great Britain would have surrendered after the blitz or Germany would have been pounded into submission by Army Air Force and RAF bombing of the place for three years, starting even before one American soldier was in ground combat.
My favorite analogy has always been the difference between the landings at Salerno in 1943 and in Normandy in 1944. In The Longest Day there's a famous scene where two airplanes take off and make a strafing run on one of the beaches and then fly away. That was the sole contribution of the Luftwaffe, by then they had no more contribution to make.
A year before at Salerno, the battle took three weeks with planes from the Allies and the Axis engaged before Allies were established. It was a close run thing as the Duke of Wellington said about another battle a century earlier. Planes do make a difference, but they're not the whole ballgame.
Billy Mitchell chose a course that finished his career in the U.S. Army. He knew it would end this way and he did it anyway. The military as an institution is resistant to change as most everyone agrees. Mitchell fought for air power and airplane development as a civilian as long as his health permitted.
Besides Cooper and Bickford the most noteworthy two performances in the film are Ralph Bellamy as Republican Congressman Frank R. Reid from Illinois who served as Mitchell's civilian defense counsel in the trial and Rod Steiger who played the hired gun from the Judge Advocate General's office who conducts a devastating cross examination of Cooper on the witness stand.
The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell is a good dramatization of one of the great criminal trials of the last century. And it's a wonderful story about sacrificing one self for an idea you believe in.
This movie portrays a riveting historical account that tells the story of a visionary of his era who was wrongfully convicted of speaking his mind and not obeying military policy and procedure of the time. After the movie ended, I was immediately compelled to "google" Colonel Billy Mitchell and learn more about his court-martial. Movies like this are intriguing due to the fact that most people of the modern day do not remember, nor have ever been schooled in military history. Billy Mitchell's accounts and rationale for putting himself in the "hot seat" for the good of out country, despite having the knowledge that in doing so he'd undergo a court-martial, are commendable and honorable. Historically, time has told the truth and validated and, in my mind, vindicated Colonel Mitchell. His vision has led to the creation of the greatest Air Force the world will ever know.
This is a decent film, for the most part a very watchable telling of a
good true story which is worth knowing about. Gary Cooper is solid in
the title role (albeit he is apparently nothing like the real-life
Mitchell) and the drama moves along at a reasonable pace.
But for 17 minutes towards the end it rises above that and becomes mesmerising. What makes the difference? Two words: Rod Steiger. The cross-examination scene, where he goads and scorns Cooper mercilessly, is one of those very rare moments in cinema when a performance holds the screen and burns itself into your memory. No matter how many times I have seen this film, I always spend the first hour or so waiting to relish this particular scene. And I am never disappointed.
So watch the film for two reasons: it is good in its own right. A well-played, thoughtful and dignified film about a good man who was ahead of his time. But whatever you do, make sure you don't miss the last half-hour!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I cannot improve on or add much to the very fine reviews already on this thred. One aspect of the film I found very interesting and perhaps crucial to its impact: did Colonel (ex-general) Mitchell accomplish what he set out to do? He persisted in martyring himself to bring to light the lack of support for flyers and to promote the air "force" as a new and integrated branch of military defense. Clearly the defense lawyer was brilliantly pursuing a course that forced the tribunal to cut their losses and restore Billy's rank, if he'd recant part or all of his accusations. He had an out. But, like Billy Budd, he chose the victim path, and, while maintaining his love and devotion to the army, made himself a scapegoat. At one point it did appear that Rod Steiger's lawyer (a wonderful bit of acting) had him on the ropes about setting himself (Billy) up a better than and morally superior to his peers and his superiors--even the army itself. Last-minute heroism ensued: Billy, sick in body and spirit **spoiler** persisted in his suit with a fairly standard speech (I though acted appropriately with weakened voice and manner because the man was sick) about doing the right thing for the greatest number, and that his country ranked even higher thn himself and all the generals present. He couldn't NOT pursue his cause and be a good man and soldier. I was satisfied by his argument; but I did not feel that the issue was resolved. He did break ranks; he did call in the press; he did undermine his fellow officers to some degree. I thought it weakened his argument and the film (unless I'm off base) to bring in all the material about jet aircraft--not that it might not have been true, and not that the prosecutor didn't make logical and effective use of these "fantasies"==but that it seemed sort of overweighted to make Billy appear a misunderstood prophet, rather than just a good experienced soldier and flyer. A wonderful film, and I thought a strong performance by Cooper (almost especially when he appeared weak and beaten.) A courtroom drama with brains and brawn. Seven-plus from jaime.
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