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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell(1955)


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In 1921, Congressmen, top United States military officers and diplomatic allies gather aboard an observation ship off the shores of Virginia to watch air pilots attempt to sink the Ostfriesland , a confiscated German vessel reputed to be "unsinkable." When the pilots' bombs miss their target, the demonstration, which was organized by brigadier general and World War I aviation hero Billy Mitchell, is deemed a failure. Despite the belief of most of the attendees that there is no future in an air-based military, Congressman Frank Reid supports Mitchell's efforts to convince his superiors that the U. S. needs a modernized air force. Later, while planning another demonstration, Mitchell fails to convince his superior, Gen. Guthrie, that airplanes are dependable weapons of war, after one of the pilots, whose antiquated plane malfunctions in the air, has a near-fatal accident. Guthrie allows Mitchell to proceed with the demonstration, on the strict condition that bombers are allowed only two attempts or "runs" to drop one-ton bombs from an altitude of 5,000 feet. Although Mitchell protests that the job requires two-ton bombs dropped at 1,000 feet, Guthrie says that flying low with a heavy load is not feasible in wartime. At the demonstration, after the first run fails, Mitchell disobeys Guthrie by ordering his men on the second run to drop a two-ton bomb at 1,000 feet and succeeds in sinking the ship. However, he is afterward demoted to a staff position in Texas as punishment for insubordination. For several years from his place of exile, Mitchell writes frequently to the War Department, pleading that pilots be given updated equipment and proper training, as he predicts that future wars will be fought in the air. Hearing that Mitchell's letters are being ignored, Frank suggests that he run for a political office, where he could more effectively fight for his cause, but Mitchell feels too loyal to the Army to quit it. Using personal leave, Mitchell flies to Washington to plead his case in person, but is brushed aside by Gen. John J. Pershing, who refuses to meet with him. After several of the men in his original squadron are needlessly killed flying old planes, and his close friend, Naval commander Zach Lansdowne, dies flying an outmoded dirigible for a Navy publicity tour, Mitchell calls a press conference to state his beliefs that these accidents were "outside the normal range" of air accidents, and accuses the General Staff of the Army and Navy of treason and incompetence. The resulting press coverage succeeds in getting the Army's attention where his letters failed, and Mitchell is summoned to Washington for a court-martial trial. When Mitchell's defense counsel, Lt. Col. Herbert A. White, suggests that Mitchell get the best civilian lawyer possible, Frank, who is also an attorney, agrees to defend him, but finds his trial strategy burdened both by the Army's constraining regulations and Mitchell's insistence that his defense not "wreck" the armed services' reputation. The prosecutor, Col. Moreland, and the Army officials who serve on the jury panel hope for a speedy trial and, wishing to avoid extensive press coverage, conduct the proceedings as quietly as possible in an Army warehouse. Early in the trial, Mitchell is told that he is being judged solely on whether he made unauthorized statements to the press and is refused the opportunity to argue the validity of his statements. After the testimony of the first witnesses, reporters who verify that Mitchell called the press conference, Frank "filibusters" to avoid an immediate guilty verdict. Quoting an Army regulation stating that the defendant's accuser must testify at the trial, Frank subpoenas President Calvin Coolidge, who is considered head of the armed services. Although the subpoena is refused, a recess is called, giving Frank time to rethink his strategy. The panel offers to let Mitchell off with a reprimand in exchange for a retraction of his statements, but Mitchell refuses, believing he is acting in the best interest of the country. Meanwhile, Frank convinces Zach's widow Margaret to testify. Under cross-examination meant to prove that she was pressured to speak on Mitchell's behalf, she surprises the court by revealing that, on the contrary, she was pressured by the military not to testify. She also reports that Zach, too, was concerned about the inadequate machines he and his subordinates were flying, but his efforts to protest through appropriate channels fell on deaf ears. Moved by her testimony, the panel discusses the case in a closed session. General Douglas MacArthur sides with Mitchell, but many of his colleagues oppose him. Resuming the trial, highly respected military aviators, among them Major H. H. "Hap" Arnold, Major Carl Spaatz, Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker and Fiorello LaGuardia, testify to the validity of Mitchell's accusations and further argue that the trial is unfair, as Mitchell is not being tried by his peers, who are experienced military fliers. From the White House, President Coolidge, uncomfortable with negative publicity, orders a speedy resolution to the trial, so Moreland assigns the military's best lawyer, Maj. Allan Guillion, to take over the prosecution. At the trial, the weakening Mitchell, who is now suffering from a recurrence of malaria, is barraged with leading questions by the clever Guillion, who then twists his answers, trying to get Mitchell to admit to exaggerating. Guillion reads to the court excerpts from Mitchell's letters, sneering at Mitchell's suggestions that three branches of the armed services, Army, Navy and an air force, be combined under a single War Department, and that an academy similar to West Point be built for airmen. Suggesting that the defendant is a dreamer and fortune-teller, Guillion reads Mitchell's predictions of air raids, bomb shelters and planes flying faster than the speed of sound on non-stop trans-ocean flights. He finds preposterous Mitchell's prediction that Hawaii will be an important port in future war, needed for control of the Pacific Ocean, and will be vulnerable to air attack. After bringing up prior incidences of Mitchell's disobedience to his superiors, Guillion sums up by suggesting that Mitchell is only a publicity-seeking insubordinate. In his rebuttal, Mitchell, struggling from the effects of malaria, declares that, if his country's future demands it, he must continue to be a "bad officer." In a secret written ballot, Mitchell is found guilty and sentenced to a five-year suspension. Despite his disappointment, Mitchell remains loyal to the service, telling the press that he owes everything to the Army. Later, Mitchell, in civilian clothes, is saluted by fellow pilots who understand what he tried to do for him. As he prepares to leave Washington, a formation of "flying jennies" passes overhead in his honor.