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In 1456, French King Charles VII recalls the story of how he met the seventeen-year-old peasant girl Joan of Arc, entrusted her with the command of the French Army, and ultimately burned her at the stake as a heretic.
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 <email@example.com>
The Mitchell family was very unhappy with the film, especially the casting of the tall, laconic Gary Cooper in the lead role. The real Billy Mitchell was short with an explosive temper. The family thought James Cagney would have been ideal. See more »
As Mitchell enters his Washington DC hotel, the ease with which he carries his suitcase and moves it around makes it obvious that it is empty. See more »
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.
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