Cast & Crew
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.
Charles Chaplin Jr.
Charles R. Keane
G. Albert Smith
Betsy Landowne Caswell
Maj. Gen. Douglas Keeney Usaf, Res. (ret.)
H. F. Koenekamp
Col. Joseph Mcmullen
John P. Oliver
Gen. St. Clair
Alma D. Young
Best Writing, Screenplay
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell
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
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell
TCM Remembers - Rod Steiger
ROD STEIGER, 1925 - 2002
From the docks of New York to the rural back roads of Mississippi to the war torn Russian steppes, Rod Steiger reveled in creating some of the most overpowering and difficult men on the screen. He could be a total scoundrel, embodying Machiavelli's idiom that "it's better to be feared than loved" in the movies. But as an actor he refused to be typecast and his wide range included characters who were secretly tormented (The Pawnbroker, 1965) or loners (Run of the Arrow, 1965) or eccentrics (The Loved One, 1965).
Along with Marlon Brando, Steiger helped bring the 'Method School' from the Group Theater and Actors Studio in New York to the screens of Hollywood. The Method technique, taught by Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, insisted on complete immersion into the character's psyche and resulted in intense, dramatic performances and performers. Steiger made his first significant screen appearance as Brando's older brother in On the Waterfront (1954). Their climatic scene together in a taxicab is one of the great moments in American cinema.
It was a short leap from playing a crooked lawyer in On the Waterfront to playing the shady boxing promoter in The Harder They Fall (1956). Based on the tragic tale of true-life fighter Primo Carnera, The Harder They Fall details the corruption behind the scenes of professional boxing bouts. Steiger is a fight manager named Nick Benko who enlists newspaperman Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart in his final screen appearance) to drum up publicity for a fixed prizefight. While the boxing scenes were often brutally realistic, the most powerful dramatic moments took place between Steiger and Bogart on the sidelines.
As mob boss Al Capone (1959), Steiger got to play another man you loved to hate. He vividly depicted the criminal from his swaggering early days to his pathetic demise from syphilis. In Doctor Zhivago (1965), Steiger was the only American in the international cast, playing the hateful and perverse Komarovsky. During the production of Dr. Zhivago, Steiger often found himself at odds with director David Lean. Schooled in the British tradition, Lean valued the integrity of the script and demanded that actors remain faithful to the script. Steiger, on the other hand, relied on improvisation and spontaneity. When kissing the lovely Lara (played by Julie Christie), Steiger jammed his tongue into Christie's mouth to produce the desired reaction - disgust. It worked! While it might not have been Lean's approach, it brought a grittier edge to the prestige production and made Komarovsky is a detestable but truly memorable figure.
Steiger dared audiences to dislike him. As the smalltown southern Sheriff Gillespie in In The Heat of the Night (1967), Steiger embodied all the prejudices and suspicions of a racist. When a black northern lawyer, played by Sidney Poitier, arrives on the crime scene, Gillespie is forced to recognize his fellow man as an equal despite skin color. Here, Steiger's character started as a bigot and developed into a better man. He finally claimed a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance as Sheriff Gillespie.
Steiger was an actor's actor. A chameleon who didn't think twice about diving into challenging roles that others would shy away from. In the Private Screenings interview he did with host Robert Osborne he admitted that Paul Muni was one of his idols because of his total immersion into his roles. Steiger said, "I believe actors are supposed to create different human beings." And Steiger showed us a rich and diverse cross section of them.
by Jeremy Geltzer & Jeff Stafford
TCM Remembers - Rod Steiger
The following written prologue appears after the opening credits: "The First World War had just ended in total victory for the United States and its Allies. Now war was a thing of the past. America disbanded its army and sank its navy. Its air force was still an unwanted child. In 1921 off the coast of Virginia, the high command of the army and navy gathered to consider a revolutionary experiment." At the end of the film, a formation of "flying jennies" dissolves into a formation of 1950s-era jet planes.
Real-life Billy Mitchell's (1879-1936) interest in military aviation began when he served as an officer in the Signal Corps, which oversaw the Army's air service, during the Spanish American War. During World War I, as Brigadier General of the American Expeditionary Force, he was in charge of American frontline aviation units and led the largest aerial offensive up to that time. After the war, the widely acclaimed war hero watched his aerial force deteriorate due to lack of funding and interest.
As depicted in the film, Mitchell proved the fighting potential of airplanes when he sank the Ostfriesland, but Army officials, who remained skeptical, demoted him to colonel and reassigned him to infantry corps headquarters. As further depicted in the film, after several military air fatalities, among them the death of his close friend, Commander Zachary Lansdowne, Mitchell publicly accused his superiors of criminal negligence and short-sightedness. He also made several uncanny predictions that later proved true.
In October, 1925, Mitchell was court-martialed for insubordination. As depicted in the film, many top aviators testified at the highly publicized trial in his defense, but he was nonetheless convicted and sentenced to five years' suspension from the military. The jury panel, which did not need a unanimous vote, convicted him by a simple majority. Mitchell then resigned his commission, and died eleven years later, still advocating American airpower. According to several modern sources, Douglas MacArthur, who served on the jury panel, is believed to have voted for Mitchell's acquittal. MacArthur was appointed Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific theater in 1942, after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, an event predicted by Mitchell (in 1923, according to the Hollywood Reporter review).
Interest in Billy Mitchell's story probably began soon after his chillingly accurate prediction of the attack on Pearl Harbor came true in 1941. According to a November 1955 Cue article, producer Milton Sperling had been considering the story for fifteen years. Producer Samuel Bronston had acquired the rights and planned to film The Life of Billy Mitchell in 1945, according to an August 1944 Hollywood Reporter news item, but this project did not reach fruition. After the success of the 1954 Wayne-Fellows production The High and the Mighty, producer Robert Fellows reported in a July 1954 New York Times news item that he had concluded a deal to do a Mitchell biography starring John Wayne based on facts of Mitchell's life, as provided to him by Mitchell's sister, Harriet Mitchell Fladoes, but this project also did not reach the production stage. According to an April 1955 Variety news item, after Sperling and Warner Bros. spent over a year getting approval from Mitchell's heirs and relatives and from the U.S. government and Dept. of Defense, they finally began production on the film in June of that year.
Several disputes over the rights were reported shortly after plans for the film's production were announced. According to an April 1955 Hollywood Reporter news item, Barnett Glassman, president of Trophy Productions, stated that he owned the rights to the book Mitchell-Prophet of Air Power by Isaac Don Levine, described as the only biography authorized by Mitchell's family. The same news item also reported that Lester Cohen claimed priority based on the 1942 book, Billy Mitchell-U.S.A., which he co-wrote with Emile Gauvreau. The news item noted that the Warner project, a story of Mitchell's military trial, was a matter of public record, rather than a biography of the man. No further information regarding Cohen's suit has been found. However, an August 1955 Daily Variety article reported that a week after Sperling and Warner Bros. settled out of court with Trophy Productions for $50,000, attorney Theodore R. Kupferman filed a general damages suit for $15,000, claiming that Warner Bros. had no right to make any payments without consulting him, as he had been appointed receiver of the property under a New York Supreme Court order. Kupferman asked for an additional $7,500 for legal expenses, a declaration of rights to the plaintiff's claim and an injunction enjoining distribution of any picture based on the Mitchell story.
The second suit added United States Pictures, J. C. Yoss, Paul R. Davison and five John Does as defendants. The outcome of this suit has not been determined. An August 1956 Variety news item reported that Roslyn Fisher filed suit in both the New York Federal and Supreme Courts against Warner Bros., United States Pictures, and Sperling, seeking no money, but an injunction to restrain the defendants from infringing on the copyright of Levine's book, to which she claimed to have been assigned the rights in 1950 from her husband John, who obtained them from Bronston in 1943. No further information on this suit has been determined.
According to Hollywood Reporter production charts and Warner Bros. studio notes found in the film's copyright file, the production was shot primarily in Washington, D.C., at the Army and Navy Club; the old War, Navy and State Department Building, called the Executive Building by the 1950s and located across the street from the White House; the railroad station; Senate office buildings; Capitol Steps, the Mall near Lincoln Memorial; Q Street; and the warehouse district. Rosemead Airport near El Monte, CA, stood in for Langley Field.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell marked the feature film debut of Elizabeth Montgomery (1933-1995), daughter of actor-producer Robert Montgomery, and future star of the popular television comedy, Bewitched. Several reviews made special mention of Rod Steiger's performance in the film. For their work on the film, screenwriters Milton Sperling and Emmet Lavery received an Academy Award nomination. When the film was released in Great Britain, the title was changed to One Man Mutiny. Another film on the same subject is the television production, The Billy Mitchell Court Martial, which aired in 1956 on CBS-TV's Omnibus television series, hosted by Alistaire Cooke, and starring James Daly. Mitchell's career and predictions were also highlighted in the 1943 Walt Disney documentary, Victory Through Air Power, which concludes with a brief dedication to the airman.
Released in United States Winter December 1955
Released in United States on Video November 15, 1987
Released in United States Winter December 1955
Released in United States on Video November 15, 1987