Gary Cooper, Elizabeth Montgomery, Rod Steiger, and Charles Bickford in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)


(director: Otto Preminger; screenwriters: Milton Sperling/Emmett Lavery; cinematographer: Sam Leavitt; editor: Folmar Blangsted; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Gary Cooper (Brig.-Gen. William Mitchell), Ralph Bellamy (Congressman Frank Reid), Charles Bickford (Gen. James Guthrie), Rod Steiger (Maj. Allen Gullion), Elizabeth Montgomery (Margaret Lansdowne), Fred Clark (Col. Moreland), James Daly (Col. Herbert A. White), Jack Lord (Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne), Herbert Heyes (Gen.John J. Pershing), Dayton Lummis (Gen. Douglas MacArthur), Darren McGavin (Russ Peters); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Milton Sperling; Warner Brothers; 1955)

“The courtroom dramatics are the heart of the film and are done in a brilliant no-nonsense way.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Otto Preminger’s stirring but low-key courtroom drama is set in the early 1920s and recreates the true incident of dedicated military officer Billy Mitchell’s court-martial because of his statements to the press in 1925 that the War Department was criminally negligent and incompetent. Billy does this to secure support for air power, which he believes is necessary to win the next war. Tired of the military leaders dragging their feet on building up an air force, the crusading Billy believes the only way he can be heard is by putting his career on the line. Though Billy lost his court-martial, what he said proved to be right (including predicting the attack on Pearl Harbor, need for an Air Force Academy, and the necessity of maintaining airpower). He was posthumously honored in 1947. The impressive script was written by Milton Sperling and Emmett Lavery.

The film opens in 1921 at an army test site off the coast of Virginia, where Brigadeer General Billy Mitchell (Gary Cooper) is conducting a test to see if his airplanes can destroy an unsinkable German battleship from WW1. The test is rigged against him by the commanding general, James Guthrie (Charles Bickford), who is hostile to Billy’s cause–believing it will be up to the infantry to win the next war just like they have won all the previous wars and does not wish to divert needed money from the army to finance a risky experiment. When Billy disobeys the rules set for the test, which would all but make certain he fails, and flies at a lower altitude and sinks the battleship with bigger bombs than set forth by the rules, he’s demoted to a colonel and transferred out of the air force into a clerical army post in Fort Sam Houston, in Texas.

After writing daily letters to the proper military authorities to tell of his concerns, the WW1 war hero is given the cold-shoulder by everyone in authority–including the one in charge of the army, General Pershing. Billy’s close friend Navy pilot Zachary Lansdowne dies in an accident along with 14 crew members that could have been avoided if the brass listened to the flyer’s complaint that the dirigible “Shenandoah” was a death trap in bad weather. Despite the commander’s pleas, the Navy forced him to fly during a storm or lose his command. Billy is so upset that he goes public with his complaints and gets court-martialed. He’s defended by the military appointed attorney Lt. Colonel White and his friend Congressman Frank Reed (Ralph Bellamy).

The courtroom dramatics are the heart of the film and are done in a brilliant no-nonsense way that gives you a good idea of the hostility the then 47-year-old Billy faced from his old-fashioned rigid superiors. Margaret Lansdowne (Elizabeth Montgomery, in her movie debut) the widow of war hero Zachary makes a compelling witness for the defense. But the skillful prosecutor Maj. Allen Gullion (Rod Steiger) ably 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. What Billy gained was that he forced the argument out for public view, something the army didn’t want. Billy was found guilty of insubordination, and suspended from active duty for five years without pay. Billy chose instead to resign and spent the next decade continuing to write and speak out forcefully for airpower to anyone who would listen.