The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)
Not a typical film brought up for discussion when going over the career of movie legend Gary Cooper. Too bad as there is plenty to recommend it. Not least of which is it’s a film directed by Otto Preminger and has a tremendous cast of actors sprinkled throughout the 100 minute running time.
It’s a Hollywood bio on the facts behind the case of the title character’s court martial. Personally I have absolutely no idea how close the script is to the actual proceedings that took place in the early 1920’s. With Cooper on board playing Cooper as much as he is Billy Mitchell, we should know what to expect based on the screen image that Coop had cultivated by this point in his illustrious career. He’s either honorable and stoic in his convictions or he’s re-enacting Mr. Deeds. This time it’s the former.
Coop is a decorated WW1 veteran of the air force. Now that peace time is upon America, the army and navy run the country’s defence and the air force has been left behind, forgotten by generals and admirals who have no use for fighting wars in the sky.
“The airplane is an unproved weapon.” General Charles Bickford is heard to say.
When Coop disobeys Bickford’s orders he’s grounded and separated from his flight team that includes a trio of young TV stars in the making. Jack Lord, Peter Graves and Darren McGavin. With Coop buried in a desk job in Fort Worth, the air force continues to dwindle under military rule and the planes and equipment used are becoming antiquated. When Lord takes up a blimp he knows to be a deathtrap and is subsequently killed, Coop finally goes public with his attacks on the military and their flagrant abuse of pilots and their lack of foresight on just how a third branch of the military could be useful in national defence. His words are viewed as treasonous and so begins the military trial which takes up a good bulk of the film making it a courtroomer and when that genre is done well, they’re always entertaining. Preminger was just getting started here and would end the decade with the sensational courtroom thriller, Anatomy of a Murder.
Much of that has to do with the performances involved and while I love all things Coop, it’s Ralph Bellamy as his defence attorney who steals the show. While Bickford and the court of Generals are deep sixing Bellamy’s case at every turn, he continually tries to get one witness on the stand to agree with Coop’s words making it more of a case of Coop telling the truth as opposed to breaking rank and speaking out against his commanding officers. Bellamy has a field day in this role and it’s by bringing in Lord’s widow played by a young Elizabeth Montgomery that allows the flood gates to open both in the court room and nationally as the case is being covered by newspaper reporters coast to coast.
It’s not just Bellamy that grandstands in the courtroom either. The prosecutor is played by Fred Clark who always comes off as arrogant though in the end the embarrassed boob and does so here once again in fine fashion. When Clark appears to be losing the case to Bellamy it’s time to bring in the heavyweight champ of all things pertaining to military law. Rod Steiger will have his chance to vigorously cross examine Coop in the film’s final scenes as only he can.
Win or lose the case I’m not saying but Coop states matter of factly at the fadeout, “The army owes me nothing. I owe the army everything.”
A good movie this one with a cast that also includes Will Wright and Gregory Walcott that’s complimented by a musical score from Dimitri Tiomkin. If the final stanza with Rod cross examining Coop are accurate depictions of the real life Mitchell’s predictions then he really could foresee the future of where air travel was headed and it’s weight in the world of military might.
This isn’t a film tht I’ve seen turning up on TCM but it was available years ago as part of a three pack VHS set starring Cooper and is also out on DVD or blu ray if you can find it. A worthwhile endeavor for more than just the Gary Cooper factor.