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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell(1955)
No synopsis for The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell.
For more about The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell and the The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray release, see the The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on July 31, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gary Cooper, Charles Bickford, Ralph Bellamy, Rod Steiger, Elizabeth Montgomery, Fred Clark
Director: Otto Preminger
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The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray Review
Look! Up in the sky!
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, July 31, 2013
Otto Preminger's name will probably forever be linked mostly to films like Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, but merely mentioning those two exceedingly disparate entries in tandem proves what a wide ranging director Preminger was. Preminger loved to push the envelope, even if by modern standards the envelope seem positively quaint (it's almost funny to look back on the brouhaha Preminger's The Moon is Blue caused in the early fifties). At times a deliberate provocateur in films like The Man With the Golden Arm (Preminger's first film after The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell), Preminger could also be kind of rote at times (River of No Return) and late in his career he devolved into something approaching self-parody (Skidoo). The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell probably tips slightly toward the rote end of the Preminger spectrum, but in one way it's a rather interesting film, at least when looked at within the context of what was soon to come from the famous director. In 1957 Preminger would come in for some major critical brickbats when he cast the young unknown Jean Seberg in the title role of Saint Joan, a film which actually has fared better in hindsight than it did at the time of its original theatrical release. In an odd way, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell seems like a probably unintended warm-up for the Seberg film. Both outings are quasi-hagiographies (obviously Saint Joan much more so, as evidenced by the title alone) dealing with a martyr to a cause, a visionary who insisted he or she knew the truth, spoke that truth to power, and suffered the consequences. If The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell fudges some relevant facts in order to make its hero less shaded, it's probably understandable given the film's thesis that Mitchell saw the war mongering handwriting on the wall and knew modern warfare was going to take to the skies sooner rather than later, even as a fumbling bureaucracy did everything in its power to keep him silent about his "vision". That salient fact is what The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell wants us to focus on, to the exclusion of some other, perhaps more troubling, aspects to Mitchell's life, including the well intentioned but pretty libelous statements he made in the 1920s that got him into trouble to begin with.
It's no secret that all of the armed services operate under a chain of command, a chain that is taken very seriously and is not to be confronted—at least not publicly. In full disclosure mode, my late father was a Major General in the United States Army, and while he never publicly questioned his (few) superiors as Billy Mitchell famously did, in private it was quite a different matter. My Dad was one of the few guys of his generation and status who thought Vietnam had dragged on far too long to little avail, and late in his life, when he was approached to be one of the national spokespeople for a program fostering employer support of National Guard and Reserve employees during the first Iraq War, he came back from a private meeting with Vice President Quayle lamenting his (how to put this delicately?) native intelligence. (I won't actually repeat his statement, other than to indicate that after a lifetime of voting Republican, he gladly switched to Clinton for the next Presidential election.) Now the fact that a ranking officer might complain about someone ostensibly in line to be the Commander in Chief may strike some as near treasonous, but remember this was "private" moaning to family members.
A case study that perhaps at least a little more closely mirrors Mitchell's from my own personal experience came years later when General William Westmoreland, one of the few guys my Dad may have confided in about his Vietnam doubts, came to present my father with a military award. I was fairly young and not especially tuned in to the situation, but Westmoreland and his wife came to our house for dinner, where Westmoreland just went off on several presidents, all within the context of his famous lawsuit against 60 Minutes, angrily saying that he felt like he was being left to twist slowly in the wind. Now this was said openly to relative "strangers" (though Westmoreland and my Dad had been buddies for decades). The salient point here is, while guys like my Dad or even Westmoreland would occasionally let loose in more or less private situations about various complaints, for the most part they kept their bitching and moaning to themselves. Mitchell's cardinal sin was airing the Army's dirty laundry in public.
There's no doubt that Billy Mitchell (Gary Cooper) was well intentioned, but there's also little doubt that he repeatedly ignored the chain of command, to the point where he was ultimately successfully court-martialed. The real historical Mitchell was a decidedly more shaded character than the All American Hero Cooper portrays, which is not to take anything away from Mitchell's prescient views about the need for American air superiority as well as the risks outposts like Pearl Harbor presented to our national defense, but merely to indicate that some at least could see some of Mitchell's machinations as at least partially self-serving. Mitchell may not have sought out the limelight, but once he was in it, he didn't especially shy away it from it. That might make Cooper's typically laconic approach to the character not especially historically accurate, but it probably makes for a more satisfying film experience.
Mitchell's nagging attitude toward his Army superiors is depicted right off the bat, as he butts heads with Major General Guthrie (Charles Bickford). Mitchell breaks the rules—repeatedly—including dropping heavier ordnance on a German battleship than he had promised to in order to prove that battleships could indeed be sunk by aerial attack. That's enough to start the hot water boiling around Mitchell, but things get decidedly worse when a couple of air disasters cause Mitchell to make his infamous public statement decrying the lax attitude of unnamed brass that is leading to unneeded deaths among the troops. Mitchell is almost immediately hauled up on charges of insubordination. He's defended by his friend, Congressman Reed (Ralph Bellamy), though things do not go especially well until Reed makes a daring gambit that at least temporarily puts the kibosh on the trial.
Mitchell is in fact offered a way out which will mitigate the damage to his career but allow the Army to save face, but as with all principled heroes, he refuses to go along with it, and so the trial is back on, this time with a slightly pugnacious prosecutor (Rod Steiger) effectively putting the screws to Mitchell. While there are a number of effective witnesses on Mitchell's behalf, including the forthright widow (Elizabeth Montgomery) of a pilot who had died when an improperly maintained dirigible had crashed, the Army plays by the rules, without letting mere emotion get in the way. Mitchell had more or less called his superiors treasonous, and that kind of statement simply cannot be allowed to stand. It's a pyrrhic victory for the Army, however, as the brief coda in the film makes clear. Mitchell may have lost the battle, but he won the war.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.55:1. This CinemaScope production's elements are not in the greatest shape, unfortunately, with some expected minor damage but more problematically some inconsistent contrast and color fluctuations, as well as some minor warping. Contrast seems pretty badly overblown for the first 38 minutes or so, at which point it improves dramatically, at least for the most part (there are occasional fluctuations after that, but not the consistent issues that plague the first section of the film). Colors seem to have faded slightly, with flesh tones looking slightly on the peachy side of things. There are a couple of rather strange passing fluctuations that can't be tied to opticals, where colors either bloom or fade for a moment and then return to a baseline level. There is some rampant ringing in evidence, though some of that is due to rear projection and one especially bad case, of a newspaper headline, is due to its being an optical sandwiched in between two dissolves.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono audio ably supports this very talky film. Dialogue is cleanly and clearly presented and the track exhibits no noticeable damage. Fidelity is excellent, though dynamic range is fairly limited.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray disc.
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Billy Mitchell underwent pretty significant rehabilitation from the time Franklin Roosevelt became President, though he never really regained the influence he had had as a younger man. (If you've ever flown in or through Milwaukee, the airport there is named after Mitchell.) The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell is a pretty staid offering, but it comes fitfully alive during the trial sequences, some of which are evidently based on the actual court records. The biopic conventions of the day wouldn't allow for Mitchell to be portrayed as anything other than a misunderstood martyr, something that deprives the film of a certain internal shading. Preminger's direction is pretty workmanlike, but the cast delivers some nice performances. This Blu-ray has generally very good video (albeit with some problems) and audio. Recommended.
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