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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell(1955)


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Billy Mitchell was a real-life WWI hero, in charge of frontline aviation units. After the war, he was made Assistant Chief of the Army Air Service, but he was dismayed to watch America's aerial force shrivel from lack of funding and interest. He began to lobby vocally and vigorously for a separate Air Force and an expansion of its responsibilities to defend the U.S. coastline. This challenge to the status quo ruffled lots of military feathers, but Mitchell was granted permission in 1921 to conduct an air power demonstration by bombing a fleet of captured and obsolete warships. Ironically, this persuaded Navy men to start developing naval aviation, but it failed to impress the Army.

In fact, Mitchell was demoted from general to colonel, relieved of his post, and sent to a remote Texas command. But he never gave up. From Texas, he started a letter-writing campaign, arguing to politicians that an Air Force must be the first line of defense. After some air accidents caused by operation of obsolete and unsafe equipment, including one which killed a personal friend, Mitchell went public, accusing the Army of criminal negligence. Most famously, he even publicly predicted a surprise Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor and maintained that the Army Air Force would not be able to stop such a raid. His superiors were furious at such outspokenness and court-martialed him in 1925. Coming to Mitchell's defense were such luminaries as future New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, and on the panel of judges was then Major-General Douglas MacArthur.

Such a remarkable story and ensuing courtroom drama were well tailored to director Otto Preminger's talents for his film version, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). Preminger filmed in Washington, DC, using prominent downtown locations, and as usual shot his picture in CinemaScope. It was a format that particularly suited Preminger and his way of telling stories. "My whole outlook on the world," wrote Preminger later, is that "I am basically an optimist. I don't believe that there are any real villains. If somebody is a villain, I try to find out why. I don't necessarily excuse him, but I try to understand him." With such an objective approach, it made sense that he would not only choose scripts with far-ranging components, but that he would want to compose in as wide a frame as possible. This allowed multiple characters to share the frame equally and left it up to the audience to make their own choices about what to look at and how to feel about what they were watching. (Such a style was the polar opposite of, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who placed the audience in intensely subjective narratives.)

Preminger learned that Cinemascope called for less editing than non-'Scope films. As he explained, "On a very wide screen, cuts shock you more. I don't believe in cutting too much or doing too many reaction shots. I feel [reaction shots] underrate the audience. Every cut interrupts the flow of storytelling. When I want a close-up, I either have the people come closer to the camera or move the camera closer to them. But always with some motivation, not wildly." In the end, while Preminger's style was quite riveting and absorbing, it was also subtle and not very flashy. Perhaps that's why Preminger is not so well-remembered today - unfortunately so, for he is one of America's great directors.

Producer (and co-writer) Milton Sperling created confusion and difficulties on the set of Billy Mitchell, recalled Preminger afterwards. "[Sperling] was a very nice and intelligent man, but he seemed to have a tremendous inferiority complex. Whenever he suggested something, and we liked it and incorporated it in the script, he came back the next day and changed it again. This went on until neither Ben Hecht nor I had the patience to go through with it. He was the only man I ever saw Gary Cooper get angry at."

Cooper played Billy Mitchell, and Preminger was greatly impressed by him: "Cooper was a great film star. Nobody will dispute that. But during our work together I discovered that he was also an actor. In fact, the actor Cooper created the film star. The slow, hesitant speech and movement, the downward look, were invented by him in order to face the camera with a semblance of the complete reality that the medium demands. In life he was different, a charming, witty, intelligent, and entertaining companion appreciated by men and adored by women."

Other standouts in the large cast were Ralph Bellamy as a sympathetic congressman who comes to Mitchell's aid and Rod Steiger, powerful as the despicable prosecutor. Two future TV superstars also appeared in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell. Making her film debut was Elizabeth Montgomery, later to star in Bewitched, and as her husband in an early performance was Jack Lord, who would go on to star in Hawaii Five-O.

Mitchell died in 1936, but WWII proved his remarkable foresight even to the United States Government, who in 1946 posthumously awarded Mitchell the Medal of Honor. Walt Disney dedicated his landmark animation-live-action film Victory Through Air Power (1943) to Mitchell, which begins with the words, "One of the men who foresaw the present mortal conflict, who tried desperately to awaken and prepare us for the issue, but who was ignored and ridiculed, was General Billy Mitchell, pioneer and prophet of air power."

In its 1955 review of The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell, Variety said, "All [the cast] are standout in professionalism, though this is a writer's, not an actor's, picture." Sure enough, the film went on to receive a sole Oscar® nomination - for Best Story and Screenplay (by Milton Sperling and Emmet Lavery).

Producer: Milton Sperling
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Emmet Lavery, Milton Sperling
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Art Direction: Malcolm Bert
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Gary Cooper (Col. Billy Mitchell), Charles Bickford (Gen. Guthrie), Ralph Bellamy (Congressman Frank Reid), Rod Steiger (Maj. Allan Gullion), Elizabeth Montgomery (Margaret Lansdowne), Fred Clark (Col. Moreland).
C-100m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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