A visionary-bucks-the-system drama somewhat camouflaged as a patriotic Gary Cooper vehicle, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell found big-studio maverick Otto Preminger seemingly dialing down the controversy of his frequent 1950s censorship provocations in favor of a salute to a World War I-era American hero. But while this military history, shot in widescreen color yet clocking in at a brisk, non-epic 100 minutes, showcased vintage planes, scores of dress uniforms, and some bombastic field-day brass in Dmitri Tiomkin’s score, it also presented the true story of an army lifer, busted from general to colonel and then put on trial for insubordination, as a rebel’s tale in the midst of Hollywood’s careful kowtowing to McCarthyism. While it may lack the spectacle of Frank Sinatra sweating through heroin withdrawal, from director Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, Billy Mitchell’s script (with uncredited input from blacklistees Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson) casts its abused warrior as a moral crusader who, in his quest to shame the army into rescuing its air service from low budgets and flying deathtraps, almost literally curses loyalty to the chain of command. “If being a good soldier [means] being insensible to a higher duty…you can have the uniform and all that goes with it,” says Mitchell in his climactic summation.
A fiftysomething Cooper conveys a fortitude and fragility that makes him a more sympathetic relic than the throng of army naysayers (led by inflexible hardass Charles Bickford) with whom his character does battle. Advocating that the air service be expanded into its own branch of the U.S. military for the coming age of aerial combat (“The whole world will be in the air”), Mitchell is rebuffed until a series of fatal accidents decimates his unit of pilots. Compelled to label the high command “treasonable” in their negligence, he purposefully invites his court-martial, but is stonewalled by a tribunal that refuses to admit evidence on whether his accusations have merit. “You can’t have a day in court where you’re not allowed to prove anything,” grouses the congressman (Ralph Bellamy) acting as Mitchell’s defense counsel, providing unexpected parallels to the post-9/11 era of military justice.
The courtroom drama that dominates the second half of Preminger’s film has its tiresome contrivances, including a lead prosecutor played by the comically flustered Fred Clark who seems entirely unsuited to nailing Mitchell’s carcass to the wall. But the moral theater that the director stages in the widescreen frame looks forward to his refinements in Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent (the latter of which, like Billy Mitchell, exploits the monuments and power centers of Washington, D.C., with then-rare location shooting). As pointed out by Chris Fujiwara in his critical biography of Preminger, the climactic skewering of Mitchell by a ruthless army lawyer (rising Actors Studio turk Rod Steiger), in the name of obedience above all, has its echo with George C. Scott’s shark-like young prosecutor in Anatomy of a Murder, but Steiger is the more invincible and hammy of the two. Billy Mitchell may be a transitional, flawed work in Preminger’s path to later institution-questioning films, but its reminder of the conflict historically unleashed within the armed services by dissent raises enlightening parallels between Colonel Mitchell and Private Manning.
The color CinemaScope image is generally good, with a golden tinge that probably reflects the choices of Otto Preminger and his cinematographer, Sam Leavitt, but there’s noticeable wear and tear at the beginning of some reels, and a few jarring insert shots that seem blown up to the point of fuzzy, unfocused ugliness. While this is likely a function of the source print and Olive Films’ budget limits for the transfer, it’s far from ideal, but not substantial enough to mar the overall presentation. The mono sound is clear, if unspectacular.
Preminger’s version of a flag-waver, a condemnation of oxymoronic military justice, is a moral chess game that can’t try very hard to fake phony uplift.