DATELINE: Court of Public Opinion
If you have a fondness for court room drama, you may have overlooked an Otto Preminger film, starring Gary Cooper. It’s out there if you look: The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.
It was not well-received back in 1955, though it was fascinating even then to look back on Col. Billy Mitchell, an aviation pioneer in the U.S. Army who was court-martialed for decrying the incompetence and negligence of the 1920s military authorities.
Cooper always brought a built-in sympathy to his biographical roles—and Col. Mitchell was, above all else, a patriot—even when his peers, a who’s who of military heroes, came together to demote and to suspend him. History vindicated him and the short-sightedness of the Army.
An all-star cast, by later standards, filled out the ranks: before they were really big, Darren McGavin, Peter Graves, and Jack Lord, played Col. Mitchell’s friends. And, the cast even featured a Douglas MacArthur lookalike as one of the judges. Well, MacArthur was among the real life judges.
Charles Bickford is his usual tough-guy general—and usually comic Fred Clark is the prosecutor who is relieved of duty to bring in the big gun: Rod Steiger, to shred Col. Mitchell in the climactic testimony scene. James Daly and Ralph Bellamy are his defenders.
It’s all rather pedestrian in its film style, but Billy did predict an Air Force Academy, jets that could fly 1000 miles an hour, and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1923. We don’t hear the name Billy Mitchell on Donald Trump’s list of military heroes—but he should be. The film is color, but feels like it’s black and white.
Mitchell went after government and tried to change it abruptly with a turn toward the future. He failed, but hindsight recognition is better than none at all.
We thoroughly enjoyed this historical episode, brought to life by a generation of top-drawer professionals.