THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL, in real-life, was a big deal back in 1925, when career soldier and flamboyant WW1 aviation chief William Mitchell (1879-1936), a Brigadier General, was tried for insubordination after publicly accusing senior commanders in the Army and Navy of incompetence and “almost treasonable administration of the national defense.” A tireless lifetime proponent of aviation’s military utility, Mitchell’s thrown gauntlet to obstinate power had him facing bigger guns than he could win against. Technology & History would soon validate his hopes and fears. Just two years after his death producer Milton Sperling started angling to put Mitchell’s story on screen. Alas, the 1955 result echoes its hero’s preparedness warnings of ‘too little, too late’. *
In the 20’s, Mitchell was a well-known and popular figure (along with seeing ahead, Billy was a vigorous self-promoter) and a one-man fight against the government was food for glory, win or lose. By the 50’s, WW2’s air armadas and subsequent jets were accepted gospel and the once-jarring case came off like a lecture from a bored history teacher. Lackluster direction from the usually keen Otto Preminger didn’t help a bland screenplay that left the backstory possibilities from Mitchell’s multi-faceted and not always squeaky clean past to simple exposition blurbs and then added fictitious elements to try to make all the talking more interesting. Plus it was miscast. Gary Cooper excelled at embodying grace and nobility under pressure, but he’s too recessed here, pre-defeated by the excitement-absent material and flat staging. Mitchell was a firebrand fireplug (think James Cagney, who Mitchell’s relatives favored) and Cooper’s laconic manner doesn’t ignite the needed sparks of defiance. He wedged this downer in between big—and much more entertaining—hits Vera Cruz and Friendly Persuasion.
Though producer Milton Sperling and Emmett Lavery got screen credit, also tooling the script were Ben Hecht and the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson. Their collective ten hands spatter the fuselage by name-dropping bits for actors to do essential walk-ons as John Pershing, Eddie Rickenbacker, Douglas MacArthur, Calvin Coolidge, Fiorello La Guardia, Carl Spaatz, Hap Arnold, etc. The best line one of them came up with gets an unintended guffaw—“Politics and the army don’t mix.” Uh-huh.
A platoon of able supporting players fill assorted uniforms, with the liveliest impression made by Rod Steiger as a sarcastic prosecutor. In villain mode that year (Oklahoma! and The Big Knife), Rod hams it large: it almost amounts to an impression of Rod Steiger. Making her debut is 22-year-old Elizabeth Montgomery as a friend of Mitchell’s, the wife of an airman who perished when the dirigible ‘Shenandoah’ went down.
Dimitri Tiomkin tries to perk things up with his score, but it’s plain he was uninspired. The special effects sequences involving Mitchell’s fliers demonstrating successful bombing on a battleship are less than impressive. The script managed to pull an Oscar nomination for ‘Best Writing, Story and Screenplay’. Box office came to $8,600,000, 33rd for ’55. **
Barking and saluting: Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Fred Clark, Jack Lord, James Daly, Peter Graves, Darren McGavin, Robert F. Simon, Charles Dingle, Will Wright, Dayton Lummis (as Douglas MacArthur, looking the part), Ian Wolfe (as Calvin Coolidge–“hey, want to play the least exciting President in our history?”), Gregory Walcott, Carleton Young. 100 minutes.
* In movies at least, courts martial decks are always stacked, the War Gods presuming anyone democratic enough to challenge their fossilized authority is begging for a firing squad, whether they were following stupid orders or not: Breaker Morant, Paths Of Glory, King And Country, A Few Good Men, Time Limit, The Caine Mutiny, The Rack, Rules Of Engagement. Ya dope, I told ya to join the Coast Guard…
** Military odes were rife in 1955 with huge winners Battle Cry, Mister Roberts and To Hell And Back, plus there was a sentimental salute to West Point, duty and tradition in The Long Gray Line. Not to be left out, The McConnell Story plugged the Air Force via an ace from the Korean War. And to long box-office contrails, Coop’s friend, WW2 air war veteran James Stewart kept peacetime skies Soviet-free with Strategic Air Command, a VistaVision bomber run that saw Mitchell’s idea of aerial supremacy borne aloft by billions of Eisenhower dollars, but an inkling of future insanity.