Based on a true story, this Otto Preminger courtroom drama recreates the court-martial of World War I hero Brigadier General Billy Mitchell (Gary Cooper). In 1925, in an effort to gain support for the use of air power, Mitchell gave a statement to the press insinuating that the War department was not only incompetent, but criminally negligent. A dedicated military man, Billy believed that air power was necessary to win the next war. Frustrated by military leaders continually dragging their feet, Mitchell built up the Air Force, putting his career on the line.
Shortly after the Armistice, a test is arranged to see how effective airplanes are in a war situation. The idea is for Mitchell’s biplanes to use aerial bombs to sink a captured German battleship, but Army General James Guthrie (Charles Bickford) changes Mitchell’s plan. He orders the planes to attack from twice as high, with smaller bombs. Guthrie’s aim is to make sure the test fails and ultimately have the airplane corps converted into an entertainment unit.
Sick of seeing his men set up to fail; Mitchell ignores orders and uses the more dangerous two-ton bombs. The test is a big success and Guthrie and the brass, disgusted, have him demoted and to Colonel and put on a desk job outside of Washington. Billy doesn’t stop his campaign for air power, lobbying the War Department about the cause. Though Billy finds a staunch ally in Congressman Frank R. Reid (Ralph Bellamy), everyone in a position of military authority gives him the cold shoulder.
After Billy’s close friend Navy pilot Zachary Lansdowne (Jack Lord) dies in a dirigible disaster that could have been prevented had the brass listened to the pilot’s concerns, Billy gives an interview openly criticizing the War Department as inadequate and criminally negligent. He very quickly finds himself court-martialed. Congressman Reid volunteers to represent Billy at trial, and his defense attorney White (James Daly) thinks he can get him off with just a reprimand. Billy insisted on pleading Not Guilty to get his day in court.
Written by Milton Sperling and Emmett Lavery, the heart of the film is in the courtroom scenes. Director Otto Preminger shoots the scenes in a clear, no nonsense way. Viewers are given a real sense of the hostility Billy faced throughout the proceedings from his superiors. While Margaret Lansdowne (Elizabeth Montgomery, in her movie debut) Zachary’s widow makes a compelling witness for the defense, prosecutor Maj. Allen Gullion (Rod Steiger) skillfully conveys the army’s side of the argument and wins the day, even though Billy holds his own and never veers from what he believes in.
Gary Cooper gives one of the best performances of his career as Billy Mitchell. Mitchell could be both laid back and incredibly aggressive, qualities that Cooper captures perfectly. Cooper also gives the character some unique quirks that make his portrayal believable. When you consider some of Cooper’s highly regarded films—Sergeant York and The Pride of the Yankees—the actor clearly excelled at playing real people. Charles Bickford is appropriately stubborn and malicious as Guthrie. Rod Steiger does not appear until the last twenty minutes of the film. His role is very small (a surprise addition to the prosecution) but he makes his scenes with Cooper count. Watching the two men in a scene together is what great acting is all about. Ralph Bellamy nearly steals the film as Congressman Reid, adding some humor to otherwise tense proceedings. Keep an eye out for appearances by Darrin McGavin (as Mitchell’s top recruit) and Peter Graves.
The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell has never looked great on DVD and Olive Films Blu-ray isn’t much better. I tend to think it has more to do with the original source than any fault with Olive. Presented in 2.55:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p presentation shows specks and damage during the stock flying footage, but generally the image is consistent. Detail is so-so, and depth isn’t there. Some grain is present.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Mono Track is a simple rather modest one, but Dimitri Tiomkin’s score sounds good and dialogue comes through clean and clear. Sound effects are decidedly a bit flat.
There are no subtitles.
There are no special features.